Is the Anti-Vaccine Movement Growing?

Boston Reverend Cotton Mather  actively promoted smallpox inoculation during a local epidemic.
Boston Reverend Cotton Mather actively promoted smallpox inoculation during a local epidemic.

We often have to remind people that the anti-vaccine movement didn’t start with Bob Sears, or Jenny McCarthy, or even with Andy Wakefield.

Did you know that the Reverend Cotton Mather’s house was bombed in Boston in 1721? Well, someone through a bomb through his window. Fortunately, it didn’t go off.

That’s 77 years before Jenner developed his smallpox vaccine!

What was Mather doing?

He had started a smallpox variolation program. He was trying to protect people in Boston from smallpox during one of the most deadly epidemics of the time.

So essentially, the anti-vaccine movement started before we even had real vaccines…

Is the Anti-Vaccine Movement Growing?

You see reports of more and more outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, hear about new vaccine laws and mandates, and depending on who your friends are, may see a lot of anti-vaccine articles and vaccine injury stories getting shared on Facebook.

You have probably even heard about pediatricians firing families who refuse to vaccinate their kids.

So what’s the story?

Is the anti-vaccine movement growing?

Is there a growing resistance among parents to getting their kids vaccinated?

“Parents are taking back the truth. It is my expectation that this crack in the dam will serve to sound an alarm. To wake women up. To show them that they have relinquished their maternal wisdom, and that it is time to wrest it back.”

Kelly Brogan, MD

Is the world finally “waking up to the dangers of vaccines,” like many anti-vaccine experts have been claiming for years and years?

The Anti-Vaccine Movement is not Growing

Many people will likely tell you that the anti-vaccine is in fact growing.

You can read it in their headlines:

  • The worrying rise of the anti-vaccination movement
  • Will 2017 be the year the anti-vaccination movement goes mainstream?
  • Pediatricians calling anti-vaccine movement a growing problem
  • There’s Good Evidence That The Anti-Vaccine Movement Is Growing
  • I was skeptical that the anti-vaccine movement was gaining traction. Not anymore.

But the anti-vaccine movement is not necessarily growing.

The overwhelming majority of parents and adults are fully vaccinated.

What we do have is a very vocal minority of people who do their best to push misinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines and vaccine dangers, and not surprisingly, they have some new ways to do it. Unfortunately, they use their anti-vaccine talking points to scare vaccine hesitant parents and those who might now be on the fence about vaccines to sometimes delay or skip some vaccines.

Most parents do their research though, don’t jump on the anti-vaccine bandwagon, and know that vaccines work, vaccines are safe, and vaccines are necessary.

The Anti-Vaccine Movement is Changing

A lot about the anti-vaccine movement hasn’t changed over the last 100 plus years.

Many early critics of vaccines were alternative medicine providers, including homeopaths and chiropractors, just like we see today. And like they do today, they argued that vaccines didn’t work, vaccines were dangerous, and that vaccines weren’t even necessary.

alicia-silverstone

The big difference?

Unlike when Lora Little, at the end of the 19th century, had to travel around the country to distribute her anti-vaccine pamphlet, Crimes of the Cowpox Ring, anti-vaccine folks can now just tweet or post messages on Facebook. It is also relatively easy to self-publish an anti-vaccine book and sell it on Amazon, put up your own anti-vaccine website, post videos on YouTube, or even make movies.

“Whatever you think about Andrew Wakefield, the real villains of the MMR scandal are the media.”

Ben Goldacre on The MMR story that wasn’t

Fortunately, all of that is balanced by something they don’t have anymore.

No, it’s not science. That was never on their side.

It’s that the media has caught on to the damage they were doing and isn’t as likely to push vaccine scare stories anymore.

Explaining the Popularity of the Anti-Vaccine Movement

The anti-vaccine movement has always been around and they are likely not going anywhere, whether or not they are growing.

Looking at the history of the anti-vaccine movement, it is clear that they have their ups and downs, times when they are more or less popular, but they are always there.

“By the 1930s… with the improvements in medical practice and the popular acceptance of the state and federal governments’ role in public health, the anti-vaccinationists slowly faded from view, and the movement collapsed.”

Martin Kaufman The American Anti-Vaccinations and Their Arguments

Why so many ups and downs?

As more people are vaccinated and diseases disappear, they forget how bad those diseases are, skip or delay getting their vaccines, and trigger outbreaks.
As more people are vaccinated and diseases disappear, they forget how bad those diseases are, skip or delay getting their vaccines, and trigger outbreaks. Chart by WHO

It is easily explained once you understand the evolution of our immunization programs, which generally occurs in five stages:

  1. pre-vaccine era or stage
  2. increasing coverage stage – as more and more people get vaccinated and protected, you pass a crossover point, where people begin to forget just how bad the diseases really were, and you start to hear stories about “mild measles” and about how polio wasn’t that bad (it usually wasn’t if you didn’t get paralytic polio…)
  3. loss of confidence stage – although vaccine side effects are about the same as they always were, they become a much bigger focus because you don’t see any of the mortality or morbidity from the diseases the vaccines are preventing. It is at this point that the anti-vaccine movement is able to be the most effective.
  4. resumption of confidence stage – after the loss of confidence in stage three leads to a drop in vaccine coverage and more outbreaks of a vaccine-preventable disease, not surprisingly, more people understand that vaccines are in fact necessary and they get vaccinated again. It is at this point that the anti-vaccine movement is the least effective, as we saw after outbreaks of pertussis in the UK in the 1970s and measles more recently. You also see it when there is a report of an outbreak of meningococcal disease on a college campus or a child dying of the flu on the local news, etc.
  5. eradication stage – until we get here, like we did when smallpox was eradicated, the anti-vaccine movement is able to cycle through stages two to four, with ups and downs in their popularity,

So the anti-vaccine movement is able to grow when they have the easiest time convincing you that the risks of vaccines (which are very small) are worse than the risks of the diseases they prevent (which are only small now, in most cases, because we vaccinate to keep these diseases away, but were life-threatening in the pre-vaccine era).

“As vaccine use increases and the incidence of vaccine-preventable diseases is reduced, vaccine-related adverse events become more prominent in vaccination decisions. Even unfounded safety concerns can lead to decreased vaccine acceptance and resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases, as occurred in the 1970s and 1980s as a public reaction to allegations that the whole-cell pertussis vaccine caused encephalopathy and brain damage. Recent outbreaks of measles, mumps, and pertussis in the United States are important reminders of how immunization delays and refusals can result in resurgences of vaccine-preventable diseases.”

Paul Offit, MD on Vaccine Safety

Fortunately, most parents don’t buy into the propaganda of the anti-vaccine movement and don’t wait for an outbreak to get their kids vaccinated and protected. They understand that you can wait too long.

The bottom line – except for pockets of susceptibles and clusters of unvaccinated kids and adults, most people are vaccinated. If the anti-vaccine does grow, it eventually gets pulled back as more kids get sick.

What to Know about the Growing Anti-Vaccine Movement

Although they may have an easier time reaching more people on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and with Amazon, the overwhelming majority of parents vaccinate their kids and aren’t influenced by what some people think is a growing anti-vaccine movement.

More on the Growing Anti-Vaccine Movement

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