Quest to understand: Anti-vaxers

Jung said: “If one does not understand a person, one tends to regard him as a fool”. This is the first in a series of articles in which I will try to understand people with a different opinion than mine on a major topic. To clarify, the goal of this series is not to bring people into my way of thinking. The goal is to try to understand the other side instead of aggressively calling them names or closing ourselves off to them. The goal is to promote the idea that just because someone doesn’t think the way I do, doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a minute of your time or your attention when they expose their thoughts. 
Let’s start with an important topic recently featured on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, vaccinations.

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Vaccinations are a modern miracle that has saved millions of lives over the years. According to the official Unicef website, vaccines have eradicated smallpox and prevented other serious diseases like diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, neonatal tetanus, Hepatitis B and many many others. But even though vaccines have done a lot of good some people are still wary of them and choosing not to follow the recommended vaccination schedule. I support vaccines all the way, so I decided to expose myself to the Antivaccination campaign for a week to try to understand why Anti-vaxers think the way they do. I wanna know what started the fire, who is spearheading the movement, how are they getting involved and what drives them. I don’t think my opinion about vaccines will change but maybe my opinion on anti-vaxers will.

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Anti-vaxers, who are they and where did the whole campaign start? Urban Dictionary defines Anti-vaxer as: 
“A person who opposes vaccinations despite scientific evidence. Often associated with a fear that they cause autism.”
For what I can tell the anti-vaccination movement started in 1998 when a former doctor named Andrew Wakefield published an article saying that through his study of 12 people he had discovered a link between the MMR vaccine (the vaccine that prevents measles, mumps, and rubella) and autism. The paper that published this study later retracted and he lost his medical license but that didn’t matter because he had planted the seed of doubt in millions of minds. Andrew Wakefield did something very irresponsible and I have no idea why since there are almost no interviews after and I couldn’t find a statement of him apologizing for his mistake. This was almost 20 years ago and there are still people thinking vaccines could cause Autism and I believe it’s because of our own human nature and our need to believe that we know is right; just think about how many people thought the earth was flat and how long it took to change their minds.

The best-known voice in the campaign and who is maybe unknowingly spearheading it is actress, model, television host, author, screenwriter, anti-vaccine activist (although she has denied the charge stating she is not anti-vaccines) and mother Jenny McCarthy who has said things like:

“If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the fucking measles.”
“Yes, a wave of 12 children with measles in San Diego is a troubling thing. But, there are more than 20,000 children in San Diego with autism! 20,000 vs. 12?”
“Moms and pregnant women are coming up to me on the street going, ‘I don’t know what to do’… And I don’t know what to tell them because I am surely not going to tell anyone to vaccinate. But if I had another child, there’s no way in hell.”

A very influential woman in her community fanning the flames of doubt and using something as feared and misunderstood as autism to spread her theories. Even though Jenny McCarthy’s missing medical degree makes me doubt her, I see how parents could be persuaded by her ideas. She is a well-known face, a trained actress who knows how to give a performance and make an emotional connection with her audience and most importantly a mom living with a special needs child. Parents see her as one of them and value her opinion and can’t we blame them? Which one of us doesn’t look for the opinion of one of our peers before making a major decision? If you are a doctor, you turn to other doctors. If you are a parent, you turn to other parents.

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According to Pew Research Center, 67% of parents looked for health or medical information online in the US as of 2002. According to Statista Research, only 59% of adults were using the Internet in 2002, now the number adults that use the internet is 89% so it’s safe to assume that more and more parents turn the internet for information about many topics including vaccination. I decided to dived into the World Wide Web to see what a concerned parents would find and so my journey into the Antivaccination Campaign began.

The first thing I searched for, the word “Vaccine” in Google. The first result I got was the CDC, then came Wikipedia, then news stories followed by governmental sites all recommending vaccination. The second thing I did was type “should I vaccinate my baby?” in google and the results changed. The first 3 results were government sites or organizations, followed by a CNN story and then websites targeted to parents with a couple government sites in between. I dived into the websites targeted specifically at parents because as I stated before, parents turn to other parents for advice and my head was spinning because the number of opinions out there is overwhelming. One site called babycenter.com has an expert advice tab where each vaccine is explained and includes the recommended schedule, who shouldn’t get it, side effects and risks, everything clear as day and beautifully explained yet there was still a lot of anti-vaccination comments. They also have a Community tab where people ask questions the community replies and guess what I found, more anti-vaccination comments. This was the trend on most of the parenting websites I visited so I understand why people are so confused. Imagine you forgot your watch at home and you ask what time it is, people around you will all tell you different things according to who they are. Some will tell you “it’s almost five”; others will tell you “five forty-five”, another person will tell you “seventeen hours, forty-five minutes and 52 seconds” and if you were to go online someone somewhere will tell you it’s 3 am and that could be true depending on where they are in the world. The point is, there is an insane number of opinions out there and when you are making a choice for someone other than yourself it can be scary as hell.

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In my opinion, the anti-vaccination movement is driven by 2 major fears which are the fear of hurting your child and the fear of big Pharma using your child to make a profit. Parents see the list of vaccines their child has to get they think of the pain their child will go through and no parent wants to put their child through unnecessary pain and then they read stories about how vaccinations could cause diseases and how people are doing fine without them and wonder if vaccines actually do anything so of course not vaccinating their kids suddenly seems like a good idea. Add that to the fear of being tricked by a giant faceless corporation who wants to make a profit and you get most of the arguments for anti-vaccination.

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This was my quest to understand people against vaccinations. It was a long, hard and torturous journey but here I am unscathed and ready to share my thoughts. The anti-vaccination movement is powerful and those who are part of it are just trying to do the best for their kids and no one can blame them for that; they are doing the right thing by trying to find information before making a choice that could change their child’s life and whether or not they are using the right sources or making the right choice is not the point of this article. I still don’t share their opinion but I don’t regret going on this journey because it gave me a different perspective and some new insides into the topic. I learned a lot about people, about vaccinations, I confirmed what I already knew about the internet and how powerful it is and I open my mind to opinions other than my own. So next time I ran into someone who doesn’t believe in vaccination I will be better prepared to have a friendly adult discussion knowing with them now that I know where they are coming from.

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