1O Things To Know About The Anti-Vax Movement

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Written by Ann Brown
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Photo: Wikipedia Commons

America’s anti-vax movement isn’t new. Some people have been opposed to
vaccinations for decades, but lately, the movement has been growing and it has many in the health field and government worried about the consequences.

“In Texas, 57,000 kids didn’t get vaccinated this year,” Peter Hotez, co-author of a paper on the vaccine movement, told Discover Magazine. That figure is double what it was five years ago.

But people have been skipping vaccinations since the 19th century. “By the 19th century, smallpox had been killing people for centuries. Once infected, patients had a 3 in 10 chance of dying. In 1796, British doctor Edward Jenner developed a vaccine for the virus. The vaccine arrived in New England in 1800 and was immediately embraced by Thomas Jefferson,” Discover Magazine reported.

Wealthy businessman William Tebb founded the Anti-Vaccination Society of America in New York. Other leagues followed in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Massachusetts. Parents thought mandatory vaccinations infringed on their parental authority and personal liberty.

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State after state started to pass mandatory vaccination laws. And by 1879 the anti-vaccination movement was started in response.

Today, in all 50 states specific vaccines are mandatory although most states allow exemption for religious beliefs. Eighteen states permit so-called philosophical exemptions.

And the current anti-vax movement is growing for many reasons, from philosophical to scientific. Here are 10 things you might not know about the anti-vaccination movement.

Anti-Vax & Nation Of Islam

They may seem like strange bedfellows, but the anti-vax movement has been working with the Nation of Islam. Why? They both share a mistrust of the government in having alternative motives for pushing vaccines to the public.

“It has been brought to our attention,” Minister Tony Muhammad of the Nation of Islam said back in 2015, “that the senior lead scientist for the Center for Disease Control has admitted that the MMR vaccines and many of the vaccine shots have been genetically modified to attack Black and Latino boys.”

Muhammad spoke of this four years ago. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) back it up. The rate of autism diagnoses has increased in the U.S., and is about 25 percent higher in Black children, according to the P&T Community blog.

The Nation of Islam has long been been suspicious of the government and vaccines.

In fact, “the Nation of Islam has been anti-vaccine for decades, a skepticism that’s part of a broader distrust of the medical establishment. In the 1960s, according to Louis Farrakhan, the NOI’s most influential leader Elijah Muhammad told his followers not to get the polio vaccine, but said others were acceptable,” Jezebel reported.

Fast forward to today, and there have many who have sided with the Nation of Islam in its anti-vax efforts. There were meetings between Muhammad and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (nephew of President John F. Kennedy) — an activist and environmental attorney who has long been anti-vaccine. RFK Jr. even spoke at a Nation of Islam event.

Kennedy Backlash

The iconic Kennedy family is not too happy with RFK Jr. for speaking out against vaccines.

His outspoken stance against vaccinations “helped to spread dangerous misinformation,” several of his own family members said in a recent Politico op-ed.

The Politico opinion piece was written by RFK Jr’s sister, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, a former lieutenant governor; brother Joseph P. Kennedy II, a former congressman; and niece Maeve Kennedy McKean, executive director of Georgetown University’s Global Health Initiatives.

His sister, his brother, and niece said Kennedy is “complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines,” potentially endangering lives.

The family even noted that Kennedy’s uncle, President JFK, signed the Vaccination Assistance Act in 1962 to, in the words of a CDC report, “achieve as quickly as possible the protection of the population, especially of all preschool children…through intensive immunization activity.”

RFK Jr. has long spoken out against vaccines and has been vocal lately about vaccine efforts in New York City. He announced his support of litigation aimed to combat the city’s efforts to force residents to get vaccinated because of a measles outbreak, NBC News reported.

“We are confident that no American court will allow government bureaucrats to force American citizens to take risky pharmaceutical products against their will,” RFK Jr. said.

Measles Is Back. Some Blame The Anti-Vax Movement   

Measles had been eliminated in the U.S. by 2000, due to the measles vaccine, which the CDC says is 99 percent effective and has virtually no side effects.

Measles have returned — and many blame the anti-vax movement. The CDC announced that the U.S. has had “at least 695 cases this year, the most since 2000, primarily from 3 large outbreaks, one in the state of Washington and two in New York. Because the CDC’s surveillance is far from perfect, the true number of measles cases is likely much higher,” Forbes reported.

What the Anti-Vaccine Movement Costs

When children haven’t been vaccinated and become sick from a preventable diseases and pass then on, it can cost the government a lot of money.

Recent measles outbreaks have been expensive for public health systems.

“Researchers at the CDC estimated that handling 107 cases of measles that occurred in 2011 cost state and local health departments between $2.7 million and $5.3 million. In 2014, 42 people came down with the disease after passing through Disneyland at the same time as a never-identified person with measles—and subsequently infected 90 additional people in California, 14 more in other states, and a further 159 people in Canada. The cost of controlling the outbreak, just in California, totaled almost $4 million. And in 2017, a five-month outbreak of measles in Minnesota infected 79 people and cost the state $2.3 million,” Wired reported.

“There are substantial public health responses that go into mitigating an outbreak, and we should pursue those, because they prevent larger outbreaks or broader social disruption,” says Saad Omer, a physician and epidemiologist at Emory University. Omer is also the senior author of a recent paper on the “true cost” of measles outbreaks. “But it does result in a lot of costs that can be pretty substantial. And we don’t measure the further indirect costs to the community,” he said.

The Reasons Why

There are various reasons why some people don’t want to vaccinate their children. Some parents feel the vaccines actually don’t protect their children. “Some insist their children’s immune systems would benefit from contracting the illness. Some don’t trust the government agencies that approve vaccines because they are ‘too close’ with pharmaceutical companies. Many believe their healthy lifestyle or prolonged breastfeeding ensures that their children will not experience the worst outcomes of a vaccine-preventable disease,” Vox reported.

White & Privileged

Most often the parents who refuse vaccines are white and college-educated, and also have a higher-than-average family income, according to various studies, including the National Immunization Surveys conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

“If you’re against vaccinating your child, there’s a good chance you’re a college-educated white woman making decent money. The rebel forces in America’s latest culture war — the so-called anti-vaxxers — are often described as middle- and upper-class women who breastfeed their children, shop at Whole Foods, endlessly scour the web for vaccine-related conversation, and believe that their thinking supersedes that of doctors. Typically their families earn more than $75,000 a year,” Philly.com reported.

Facebook Vows To Ban Anti-Vaccine Misinformation

There is a lot of misinformation about vaccines on social media, sometimes spread by anti-vaxxers. There s also a lot of misinformation about the anti-vaccine movement. And now Facebook has promised “to combat the spread of anti-vaccine information across the social media platform by reducing the distribution of misleading medical advice and relying on vetting from leading global health organizations that have publicly identified verifiable vaccine hoaxes,’” NPR reported.

“If a group or Page admin posts this vaccine misinformation, we will exclude the entire group or Page from recommendations, reduce these groups and Pages’ distribution in News Feed and Search, and reject ads with this misinformation,” Monika Bickert, vice president of global policy management, said in a statement.

Ads with false facts about vaccines will be also rejected and removed.

Big Pharma Backlash

People just don’t just the major pharmaceutical companies and many anti-vaxxers feel the industry is behind the push for vaccines so they can make money.

“Vaccine supporters – which include federal, state and local officials, the public health community and most doctors – say it wasn’t drugmakers’ idea to require protection from largely eradicated deadly diseases. It’s the government’s doing,” USA Today reported.

Bernadette Pajer became a critic of vaccine science after her son, now 16, developed severe allergic reactions after vaccinations.

Pajer’s advocacy group says drugmaker Merck can’t be trusted with its measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, also known as MMR, in large part because it is fighting a federal whistleblower lawsuit in court that alleges the company overstated the effectiveness of the mumps vaccine.

A statement from Merck says it is “prepared to disprove the false allegations at trial, if necessary.”

Anti-Vax Movement Growing Globally

Some countries are actually making a vaccine U-turn.

“Today, rising populism in Europe and the United States is part of a new wave of anti-vaccine distrust in the establishment, say experts,” CNN reported.

British parents have begun to shy away from vaccines. And some last August, “Italy’s populist government shocked the scientific and medical community after it removed mandatory vaccination for school children.”

“Italy is part of a global trend of distrust in mediators — doctors and scientists — who can interpret and explain data,” said Andrea Grignolio, who teaches the history of medicine and bioethics at La Sapienza University of Rome. “With the advent of the Internet, people have the illusion they can access and read data by themselves, removing the need for technical and scientific knowledge.”

Vaccine hesitancy, is one of the biggest threats to global health in 2019, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease — it currently prevents 2-3 million deaths a year, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved,” WHO said.

But vaccine hesitancy, or the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines, “threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases.”

Marching For Movement

Supporters of the anti-vax movement are getting more vocal and active. There have been nationwide protests against vaccines. Recently, hundreds of people attended an anti-vaccination event in Rockland, New York, even though this is where the outbreak has hit hardest.

“The rally’s featured speakers included Andrew Wakefield, whose widely disproved study linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism helped spur the modern anti-vaccine movement. In 2010, the UK stripped Wakefield of his medical license after he was accused for fraud and abuse,” Vox reported. The rally was attended by hundreds, as have other protests across the counry.