May 25, 2024

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Anti-Vaxxers: Where Did They Come From, When Will They Go?

Why Controversy Over Vaccines Still Exists and Where Anti-Vaxxers Came From

“Don’t believe everything you hear”: A wise piece of advice. Twenty years ago, Andrew Wakefield made an unprecedented claim to the scientific community that spurred what is now an ongoing societal controversy. Wakefield, eventually revoked of his medical license, elicited widespread fear by suggesting that the MMR (Measles, Mumps, and Rubella) vaccine could induce autism. Since his initial research proposal in 1998, platforms such as the internet, television, and social media have spread propaganda arguing against all vaccines. “Anti-Vaxxers” have now generated enough fear to convince susceptible parents not to immunize their children, creating a recent wave of measles outbreaks.

In 2000, measles was officially declared eradicated from the United States due to the success of improved vaccination programs. However, just two years prior to this medical breakthrough, Andrew Wakefield produced an article detailing his conspiracy theory related to the MMR vaccine. The article was published by The Lancet, a highly regarded scientific journal and peer review. Editors of the journal did not question the validity of Wakefield’s “research” because, at the time, he was an esteemed doctor.

Over the course of six years, multiple studies were conducted to try and replicate Wakefield’s findings, although none were successful. In 2004, The Lancet had gathered enough evidence to prove Wakefield had based his conclusions on nothing more than conjecture. In the aftermath, The Lancet removed the article from circulation, published a regretful apology letter, and saw to it that Andrew Wakefield was permanently discredited within the scientific community.

So, why are we still seeing such rampant support for a conspiracy that has been repeatedly proven false? Despite attempts to reassure the public of the safety and benefits of vaccines, the damage became too widespread to be reversed. A wave of propaganda induced by unfounded documentaries and anti-vaccination groups, organized on social media platforms, have become a leading contributor to the public’s misconceptions.

Andrew Wakefield’s Inability to Backdown

Even after Andrew Wakefield had his medical license revoked and was repeatedly disproved of his conspiracies allotting vaccines cause autism, he refused to be silenced. He went on to write two books, both reiterating his misleading rhetoric. Intermittently, Wakefield also found time to direct a documentary entitled Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe. Upon release, the documentary was accepted by all major streaming platforms, such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, resulting in pervasive panic.

Mary Holland, a law professor at New York University, actively fought against government requirements of vaccines. Holland is an avid supporter of Andrew Wakefield and wrote a deceptive article supporting his fallacious argument on a website dedicated to promoting the anti-vax agenda. The site includes paid access to Wakefield’s documentary, as well as excessive amounts of advertising in the form of merchandise and biased media clip coverage. The documentary has recently been removed from Amazon Prime; however, the film and his books can still be ordered from Amazon’s website.

Influences of Social Media on Anti-Vaxxers

The bullish anti-vaccination community spurred by Wakefield’s propaganda, up until recently, congregated on Facebook within specialized forums. However, as the issue has become more prevalent due to the recent string of measles outbreaks, internet propagators are now being combatted by elaborate algorithms. These groups became targeted because of their frequent aggressive behavior against anyone who promoted vaccines, especially when children were involved. Facebook has made it clear that they will not infringe users right to free speech, which means they won’t force deletion of posts or disbandment of groups. Instead, new “internet watchdogs” will pinpoint hoaxes related to vaccines and remove them from high search rankings and/or recommendations.

Pinterest, another social network service, took steps even further to mitigate the tensions spurred by online aggressors. Steps included blocking search results that had anything to do with vaccines, regardless of the search being favorable or discouraging. Whether or not the decision by Pinterest executives was in favor of public health, it is concerning as to why such a large portion of the public sphere relies on a social media company for their news and information. Pinterest is strictly a platform designed for people to spread ideas and opinions, not a source for facts or statistical evidence.

How to Combat False Information Pertaining to Vaccinations

Confirmation bias is a phenomenon in the field of Psychology that explains why people don’t go out of their way to disprove preconceived beliefs. Shahram Heshmat, Ph.D. explains that once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it. This means that anyone who holds any skepticisms about the downfalls of vaccines can potentially fall into a “black hole” of false reassurances. The way individuals access information all depends on keyword phrases and the way those are interpreted by our search engines. If one were to type into Google “the benefits of vaccines,” the results would provide sites and articles that defend their search for benefits, and vice versa. Therefore, according to the scientific method, it is critical to research both sides of any issue so as not to fall victim to confirmation bias.

The Truth About Vaccines

Modern medicine is at a peak of revolutionary standards and is continually advancing. In developed countries, like the United States and United Kingdom, deadly diseases such as measles and tetanus have been effectively eradicated. Technology, in the form of vaccines, is what halted the spread of these diseases and built up an increased immunity. Both measles and influenza are extremely contagious diseases that quickly destroy the immune system and have devastating results, even if medical treatment is available. In underdeveloped countries throughout Africa and South Asia, where vaccines are not widely accessible, these diseases are prevalent and result in thousands of deaths per year.

The World Health Organization produced figures that show the universal rate of measles outbreaks in the first quarter of 2019 is up 300% compared to cases counted during the same period last year . The Center for Disease Control reported that the increase is a direct result of outbreaks abroad. The main attributable factor for the spike in these diseases is the lack of individuals receiving vaccinations, which many have identified as a growing health crisis. James Goodson is a senior measles scientist at the CDC and explains that when large measles outbreaks occur in countries that are popular travel destinations, unvaccinated U.S. travelers catch the disease and bring it back. This, according to Goodson, is the leading cause of the reemergence of measles and why we are seeing such widespread outbreaks.

What we are currently witnessing in the United States is a domino effect; Parents giving in to irrational fears of vaccines, choosing not to vaccinate their children, traveling with their unvaccinated children to countries where the measles virus is prevalent, children catching the disease, bringing it back to the U.S. and inevitably spreading it to anyone who comes into contact with the infected child. Information produced by Unicef states that of those individuals who are not immunized and exposed to measles, 90% will become infected.

For those seeking facts on vaccines and any possible side effects, hospitals are required to deliver all pertinent information to anyone who requests it before they receive a vaccine. Detailed information statements are readily available for patients, which include reasons to get vaccinated, who should not receive vaccines, risks and possible reactions, and what steps to take if one encounters a serious reaction. Additionally, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program is a federal program created to compensate anyone who may have been injured by vaccines or encountered serious reactions caused by them.

The bottom line is that Vaccines save lives. Sarah Ferguson, an editorial consultant at Unicef, reported that, “Immunization is one of the most cost-effective public health interventions to date, preventing an estimated 2 to 3 million deaths every year.” Ferguson also notes that while measles is a devastating disease, the infection that has been spreading across America is misinformation. The cure for this epidemic may lie in the hands of citizens and their ability to accurately educate themselves on the subject, as well as spread awareness to others.

New Vaccination Technologies

One of the bigger challenges with getting people to receive their vaccines is overcoming a fear of syringes, which coincides with a mental stigma of pain induced by injection. New methods for delivering vaccines are currently being tested. One such method in its early trial stages is microneedle patches. If successful, this technology would be able to be self-administered and utilize dissolving micro-needles coated with the flu vaccine. According to researchers at Emory University and Georgia Institute of Technology, this would be more cost effective than our current injection methods. Along with developments such as nasal sprays, these methods eliminate the pain factor as well as reduce risks associated with needles. These alternatives have exceeding potential to dramatically increase the up-take of vaccines, especially in areas of the world that do not have the privilege of accessing expensive injection-based vaccinations.

Picture of By Sophia Gabrielson

By Sophia Gabrielson

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