I was an “antivaxxer.” Today, that surprises many people as I’m an outspoken advocate for vaccination. But it’s true. Once upon a time, I was just as outspoken against vaccination, particularly mandatory vaccination. It rankled my inner Libertarian, this notion that “They” could tell us what to put in our bodies. Polluting our children’s precious bodily fluids with mercury and aluminum. How dare they.
When the Wakefield study (now thoroughly debunked, discredited and stinking up the compost pile) was released, I read it from beginning to end. That was the moment when I became not only anti mandatory vaccination, but anti-vaccination. When I spoke with people around me, also opposed to vaccines, they had much to tell me. They told me that vaccine immunity is inferior to natural immunity. They told me that sanitation, not vaccination, was responsible for the decline of vaccine preventable illness. They told me that the decline in the natural life cycle of polio simply coincided with the rise in vaccination. They told me that Big Pharma made huge profits off of vaccines. They told me that breastfeeding provides immunity against all illnesses, and that a healthy mother’s milk was better than any vaccine. They told me that most of the sick people in an outbreak of vaccine-preventable illness are vaccinated, so clearly vaccines didn’t even work. I listened to these people. They had magazine articles and books and websites, and I devoured them all.
My son had already been mostly vaccinated, as he was about 6 when all this happened. I was horrified that I’d let doctors put mercury and aluminum into his little body. I felt guilty and outraged at the medical establishment for leading me astray. I vowed never to get him another vaccine, because now, I knew better. I was lauded by my anti-vaccine friends for my regret, and my newfound awareness.
The year I began my prerequisites for nursing school, I took a class in Microbiology, which I devoured as eagerly as the anti-vaccination propaganda I’d consumed before. I discovered some unsettling information there…I discovered how immunity actually works. I discovered how vaccines actually work. And suddenly there were cracks in the firmament.
It took some time, and no small amount of courage, but I slowly began to do more research. I discovered that shingles is what happens when your immunity to chickenpox begins to wear off and the virus reactivates – so much for natural immunity being inherently superior or lifelong. I found out that even breastfed babies can get whooping cough – so much for breastfeeding replacing vaccines and herd immunity. I realized that people had modern sanitation – even indoor plumbing and soap – during the height of the polio and measles crises – so much for sanitation being a cure all. I learned that there is no natural decline of polio – only deaths caused by it. And yes, deaths from polio did indeed decline before the polio vaccine was introduced… but it was because they’d invented the iron lung. Polio cases didn’t decrease, only polio deaths, because of better medical treatment.
On and on it went. Everything crumbled around me in layers of logical fallacy and misrepresented statistics. “Big Pharma” makes less than 0.9% of their profits (1.82% of their revenue) from vaccines. Hardly worth it, and many pharmaceutical companies are getting out of the vaccine production business as a result.
The last one to fall, the hardest brick in the wall, was the fact that often most victims in an outbreak have been vaccinated. That one is, surprisingly, quite true. But it’s not true because vaccines don’t work. It’s true because vaccines are very popular. If a vaccine protects 90% of the people who get it, and 95% of a group of 1,000 people get it, then 950 people will be vaccinated, 95 of them will get the disease in our hypothetical outbreak, and the 50 unvaccinated people will get it. Nearly twice as many of the sick people are vaccinated, but the vaccine still prevented illness in 855 people! It wasn’t the vaccine effectiveness that was lacking, it was my understanding of math.
During this time, Andrew Wakefield’s study was being torn apart in scientific circles as well as the popular press. These were the final blows. I was no longer afraid of vaccines. Now I was very, very angry. I was livid that this man, in his greed to promote his own MMR vaccine, had falsified data and performed unethical experiments on children. But mostly I was enraged that he had fooled me. Not only was my son now behind on his boosters, but I’d had a micropreemie daughter, and refused her early vaccines. While we were very lucky that neither of them caught a vaccine-preventable illness, the fact that he tricked me into putting my children at risk can never be forgiven.
People will sometimes ask me, “Do you think that antivaxxers’ minds will ever be changed?” I honestly don’t know. I think there is a cohort which is indeed intractable. These are the people who didn’t reason themselves into their position, so they cannot be reasoned out. They are acting out of fear and stubbornness, and I don’t know if that can be fixed. But I do know there’s another group. There are some who did reason themselves, educated themselves, into their anti-vaccination stance. Most of my friends are brilliant, educated people. They are afraid, but they’re also well-read…they’re just reading the wrong things. And for that group, for my group, I beg you… don’t give up on us. We can be reasoned out of it again with better information. It’s not easy, but it’s worth saving lives by trying.