Ethan Lindenberger is an American high-school senior who, on Tuesday, testified before the US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He got himself vaccinated after asking on Reddit how to do so against the wishes of his anti-vax mother.
In his testimony, he attributed his mother’s misinformation to anecdotal guidance from Facebook and church. His mother believes vaccines cause severe side-effects such as autism or permanent brain damage.
I always dismissed the anti-vax movement as another social media and populism fuelled phenomenon, but I never stopped to wonder why this is still a topic under discussion. There is overwhelming research backing the safety and efficacy of vaccines, disproving its link to autism, how is there still room for debate?
But before getting into the more intricate arguments, a couple of quick cases against vaccinations and why they are unfounded. One common claim is that, “Vaccines contain harmful chemicals such as aluminum, mercury, and formaldehyde.” These are, in truth, present in vaccines, but not in large enough amounts to be dangerous; children get more exposure to aluminum through breast milk than from vaccines. Another, “Autism frequency has increased (in the US, 1 in 59 children are on the autism spectrum) with the rise of vaccination rates.” This can be attributed to better and more accurate diagnosis of autism, not an actual rise in its occurrence. These two observations are linked only through a progression of modern medicine; correlation does not equal to causation. And lastly, “vaccines cause severe side effects like anaphylaxis.” The risk of anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction) induced by a vaccine is 1 in a 1,000,000. The risk of dying in a car crash, however, is 1 in 303. And before the measles vaccine was introduced, measles infected 4 million Americans every year.
The arguments get more complicated and difficult to rebuff from here. Most anti-vax parents refuse to vaccinate their child out of genuine concern and suspicion - they believe the risk of vaccination is higher than the risk of catching a vaccine-preventable disease. It’s an easy mistake to make: there are a decreasing number of cases of vaccine-preventable disease, making their threat seem small. But of course, the only reason for this decrease is because vaccination rates have, until recently, been increasing. What people aren’t told, but should be, is the number of people who would be infected when different population percentages are vaccinated.
Whether or not vaccines should be mandatory (with exemptions to immunocompromised individuals and those at risk of anaphylactic shock) is yet another debate. The financial cost of preventing disease is much less than that of treating and recovering. There is also the explanation of herd immunity, where infections cannot spread when a threshold percentage of the population is vaccinated, so even unvaccinated individuals cannot contract disease. The crux is, whether a government can infringe on individual freedoms, make health decisions for everyone, even if for the public good. Furthermore, in order to be compulsory, the government must be able to track the vaccination status of everyone, likely through a database, which is yet another way the government would irritate the anti-authority libertarians. But, living in a democratic society has been, and always will be, an ultimate paradox of freedom and sovereignty. You give up the right to certain freedoms (following the law) in exchange for the benefits of living in a society.
So, who can we blame? The health industry, for one. There is a staunch belief amongst a certain wing of anti-vaxxers in a global conspiracy to deliberately make people sick so that Big Pharma can profit from treating them. They ignore the scientific basis for vaccines because they’re sure that Big Pharma tampers with statistics and cherry-picks data. I read a comment online from a mother who wasn’t going to vaccinate her son because she thought her doctor would ignore her concern of vaccine-induced side effects, and ridicule her for even considering the possibility. It’s no surprise people are unwilling to trust the health industry; they’ve had their fair share of scandals: the opioid crisis, Big Sugar…
I believe that improved science communication and transparency is at the core of halting the anti-vax movement. What links populism to this movement is a deep-rooted distrust in the government, suspicion of big corporations and establishments, including scientists. Scientists should stop underestimating their audience, but also shouldn’t scoff at the doubt in vaccines and expect anti-vaxxers to discover the flaws in their own argument. The sentiment that science can only be understood and discussed by experts has to be destroyed! It is this very sentiment that infuriates anti-vaxxers when their concerns are met with jeers instead of proper, clear explanations. For all the scientific papers that anti-vaxxers reference that do somehow show a causation between vaccines and other diseases, the scientific community should acknowledge the existence of these articles, then explain why they are not credible: too small a sample size, conflict of interest, unreliable source, faulty methodology etc. Simply repeating to them that there isn’t any correlation without explaining the basis for the statement, or discussing their erroneous sources amongst only themselves, is not convincing.
There should also be more information on government websites explaining vaccination on a societal basis instead of only providing information for individuals. We should also learn to weed out misinformation campaigns based on discord and fear-mongering of the public and acknowledge that these groups are separate from parents who act out of genuine concern for their child’s health. Lastly, a campaign of promotion instead of suppression should be pursued. Even if untrue information is being suppressed, it makes anti-vaxxers to feel even more alienated and that their opinion has been overlooked, and only serves to reinforce their distrust in the government and in industry for controlling what they have the freedom to say.