When I mention I study the anti-vaccine movement, the typical response I get is an exasperated “UGGGHH. I can’t believe how stupid those anti-vaxxers are.” According to newly released research by Pew Research Center, about 88% of Americans believe the benefits of vaccines outweighs the risk. It is quite the accepted norm that vaccines are safe and effective; however, there is a growing movement of parents, scientists, and concerned citizens that argue otherwise.
During the last 4 weeks of the new presidential administration here in the U.S., we have been bombarded and flooded with executive orders, protests, and controversies. It is nearly too overwhelming to focus on one topic, let alone all the issues that deserve our attention. Many argue that this is an intentional tactic by the administration and as a result several topics have been flying under the radar, including vaccines.
Vaccines are important to Trump
President Trump has long been critical of vaccines. He believes there is a link between the vaccine schedule and autism and he plans to do something about it. Last week, during a meeting with educators at the White House, Trump brought up concerns about the increase in Autism rates.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr., vocal environmentalist and vaccine skeptic, is in talks with Trump to head a vaccine safety commission. Just last week, Kennedy and actor Robert De Niro held a press conference about their concerns about the safety of vaccines and offered $100,000 to whomever could prove that vaccines are safe.
Legislation is used to increase vaccinations
To challenge the growing trend of vaccine skepticism and refusal, legislation is being passed that limits parents’ choice. In 2014, the U.S. saw the largest number of cases of measles in 20 years with the majority of cases originating from an outbreak at Disneyland. California has an increasing amount of parents who have been opting out of vaccinating their children by using a personal belief exemption (PBE). Post-outbreak, California passed a bill that removed all non-medical exemptions (e.g. PBE & religious exemptions) to childhood vaccines. Texas is currently attempting to pass similar legislation to increase vaccination rates.
The question is, “So What?”
If the accepted norm is that vaccines are good and most people are vaccinating, then why do we care about this group? Surely the pro-vaccine majority will challenge any anti-vaccine legislation, right?
This movement is larger than anyone realizes.
This comes back to the typical reaction I hear when I bring up anti-vaxxers: immediate guttural criticism. It is still incredibly taboo to openly state you question vaccines. Many people within the movement are not “out” to friends, family, and coworkers. Those who are often face criticism, isolation from those who they are close to, or even threats to their children. It is no surprise that a person may want to keep their thoughts to themselves instead of risking ostracization from those in their communities — just like Trump voters.
To say the U.S. and the rest of the world was shocked when Trump won the presidency is an understatement. Most polls projected a sizable Clinton victory. It is difficult to measure, but many people believe the Bradley effect was likely a large contributor to how the polls simply got it wrong. It was taboo, for some, to be a Trump supporter. Social desirability influenced those voters into projecting a certain opinion to the public, or to pollsters, rather than admitting their true position — they are going to vote for Trump. The same phenomenon is happening here. It is taboo to be anti-vaccine and people, even in anonymous surveys, are keeping their thoughts to themselves.
The anti-vaccine movement is much larger and widespread than you realize
No survey or study is accurately capturing the number of people who hold anti-vaccine beliefs or would express those beliefs at the voting booth. Being anti-vaccine does not just mean a person believes there is a link between vaccines and autism. It can be a person who doesn’t want mandated requirements without an option to opt out. It can be a person who is worried about the financial conflicts of interest of large pharmaceutical companies and their influence on vaccine laws and research. It can be a person that just wants follow a delayed schedule because they are concerned about the number of vaccines a child gets during early development years. There is more to the movement than just believing there is a link between vaccines and autism.
In the flurry that has been the transition of power, it is increasingly difficult to stay on top of all the changes that are occurring. If the Trump administration does put a Vaccine Safety Commission together headed by Kennedy and propose new legislation and regulations, the support for these would be greater than anticipated or predicted. It is not unreasonable that we would see a shift lessening vaccine mandates and schedules. Do not discount the secret growing number of people who occupy the movement.