It hard to overstate the impact of widespread vaccination programmes to human health. Outside of clean water and sanitation it has saved more lives than any other public health measure. And yet, despite this, since its arrival in the 1700’s any discussion on vaccinations remain controversial. Discussions on the topic remain plagued by scare mongering and misinformation!
Such scaremongering and the resultant decrease in vaccination uptake has tragically seen the recurrence of previously nearly extinct diseases. We are seeing this year record outbreaks of measles across America and Europe. Vaccine misinformation has even affected the uptake of the HPV vaccine; HPV can cause 5% of all cancers so it is very surprising that such resistance has been encountered. Such is the threat of this phenomenon, the World Health Organisation has recently declared “vaccine hesitancy” a “top 10 threat to world health.”
There is a significant difference between being hesitant about vaccines and being an “anti-vaxxer”. To be hesitant, have significant concerns and to seek an evidence based response is completely understandable. I can see as a parent, how some parents can be terrified after seeing some of the shocking claims circulating around social media. But crucially people like this are usually reasonable people and are open to explanation. Usually after their fears are explained away in detail, they tend to see how vital vaccinations are for them and their children. Unfortunately, some Doctors add to the problem, when they respond to questions about vaccine safety in an arrogant fashion. A lot of Doctor’s find it hard to admit, that they don’t know every side effect of every injection and if put on the spot, will panic. Instead of admitting, that they don’t immediately have a list of possible side effects on the tip of their tongue, some will unfortunately not answer the question. Instead they will turn the tables and try to make people feel silly, for even daring to question them or the integrity of the vaccines. Fuel added to the anti-vaxxer fire!
Most of us Doctor’s positively endorse families having a degree of vaccine hesitancy. To ask questions is healthy! But to be in an anti vaxxer group is different. Anti vaxxer groups are malicious. They are not a new phenomenon having been around since vaccines were introduced. However, the advent of social media has seen them thrive. They are incredibly difficult to disarm. They do not argue on scientific grounds. They tend to have a preference for anecdote over data and universally, they tend to be committed conspiracy theory enthusiasts. The anti vaxxers only way to explain away centuries of science is to have a firm belief that some over-arching conspiracy theory is at play. In order to think that vaccination is wrong, you must also accept that for 300 years that scientists have been universally incompetent and that Doctors are in the main, corrupt. This would rely on millions of people worldwide being “in on it” and, on top of this ludicrous idea, to consistently hide this “secret” from everyone else for 300 years!
Ego plays a role too for the anti vaxxer groups. They frequently play the card of having “inside knowledge” on pharmaceutical companies, Doctors and health departments. This illusion of this special knowledge is deeply felt in the anti vaxxer community. As one commentator put it, “if you feel that you are privy to some “special information” then you can indulge in feeling superior to the deluded masses below you.” Nice little massage for the ego!
What can we do? Can we just ignore anti vaxxers viewing them with pity? Unfortunately not. They do tremendous damage to public health and cost thousands of lives. They are very determined and are never going to be reasoned out of their nonsense.
Scientists and Doctor’s will have to engage more in their own social media communications as we know this does have a positive impact. There will also have to be a public strategy to teach people how to identify a dubious media source from a reliable one. Anti vaxxers constantly bombard new parent forums in particular and here the onus should be on social media companies to fight it. I won’t hold my breath!