I had been feeling tired and dizzy for several weeks. My concentration was flagging by mid-afternoon every day, and I was experiencing persistent rheumatic pain in most of my major joints. My GP didn’t seem too worried, but booked me in for a blood test in a week’s time and told me to take it easy.
It was around the same time, in 2018, that measles cases across Europe hit a 20-year high. The sharp rise, blamed by the World Health Organization (WHO) on vaccine hesitancy, was heralded by the rapid resurgence of the ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement. Today, the threat anti-vaxxers pose to public health is even more pressing: just this month, measles outbreaks have been reported in areas of Greece, Italy, France, Canada, Ireland, the USA and Japan; the WHO ranks vaccine hesitancy among the top ten threats to public health in 2019.
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It is no coincidence that the smiling presence of Andrew Wakefield – a struck-off British doctor, notable for widely discredited research linking the MMR vaccine to autism – had re-entered public consciousness in 2017 after being spotted at one of President Donald Trump’s inauguration balls. In the subsequent months, the British press had covered with interest – and often rising alarm – his exploits in America.
The dangerous power of the anti-vaxxer brigade
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But none of this was on my mind when, attending the surgery for my blood test, I was offered a free flu vaccination. Nor when I was immediately offered another free vaccine, against pneumonia. Indeed, it rather gave me pause when the friendly medical assistant ran through a remarkable litany of awful things that could happen to mild asthmatics – like me – who contracted pneumonia, including the possibility of ending up in a coma. So I consented. Like the majority of British people, I am a firm believer in the public health benefits of vaccination.
I then headed into work, where I felt completely fine for a couple of hours. Then I lost most of the movement in my left arm. I started to feel alternately boiling hot and freezing. My view of the office started to spin like a slot machine. I held on to the edge of my desk with my good arm, to avoid falling out of my seat.
The next day, I was in agony. I went to A&E, expecting to be given a prescription for codeine and summarily dismissed. Instead, as my arm had swelled to almost the size of my thigh, I was admitted as an inpatient.
Doctors tried various combinations of antibiotics to bring down my speeding heart rate, spiking temperature and grotesquely swollen arm. I’d been under the weather, but no evidence of an underlying condition was found in any of the tests the hospital ran. We were left with one conclusion: getting vaccinated had made me dangerously sick.
For a while, I was angry that I had been given the second vaccine at all: several doctors at the hospital had remarked that they would never have bothered vaccinating a mildly asthmatic 22-year-old against pneumonia. They told me it had probably been done because the GP surgery received additional funding per vaccinated patient. Suddenly, the medical assistant’s pneumonia horror stories made a lot more sense.
But then, when a diagnosis was finally reached, I realised the stupidity of my annoyance. I had contracted a severe case of cellulitis, a common and usually non-serious condition that can occur after any break in the skin. It can, though rarely, be caused by an injection needle and it can, again rarely, become serious. In short, I had just been really unlucky.
But that isn’t a comforting explanation. When, filled with righteous zeal, I began searching the internet for a reassuring answer to why I had become so ill, the only places offering one were social media communities for anti-vaxxers. For the first time, I understood the draw of these groups – and there are a lot of them out there.
Type ‘vaccination’ into the Facebook search bar and you receive suggestions like VACCINE TRUTH MOVEMENT, Vaccination Re-education and Stop Mandatory Vaccination. The latter group is followed by more than 130,000 accounts and was recently censored by the UK Advertising Standards Agency over a paid-for Facebook post. “Parents,” it read, “not only can any vaccine given at any age kill your child, but if this unthinkable tragedy does occur, doctors will dismiss it as ‘Sudden Infant Death Syndrome’.”
The post also included an image of a baby, eyes closed, with the caption: “Owen Matthew Stokes (Aug 18, 2017 – Oct 25, 2017)… 2 month old dies 48 hours after 8 Vaccines”.
Personal stories like this one feature heavily across online anti-vaxxer communities. Most of them are about babies with congenital health conditions, diagnosed after the child had been vaccinated. But that isn’t how the graphics, videos, and below-the-cut posts tell it.
There is a persistent belief among anti-vaxxers that ‘too many’ vaccinations at once can overwhelm the immune system, causing illnesses from encephalitis to multiple sclerosis – or, classically, neurodivergence like autism. Debunking this with scientific evidence has proved ineffective; the almost inevitable responses are another sick baby scare-story or a pseudoscientific counter-argument, backed up by the apparent authority of a naturopath.
This month, Pinterest decided that the only tenable solution was a blanket ban on all content relating to vaccines, recognising that their platform had become a hive of misinformation and scare-stories propagated by anti-vaxxers.
What’s striking about these groups, is the range of political viewpoints they can accommodate. Left-populist distrust of profit-motivated healthcare comes up a lot – its an understandable instinct, and one I felt too when I was given reason to wonder if the man who vaccinated me did so out of financial incentive. A lot of people in these communities also have strong libertarian leanings. They are inherently suspicious of government incentives to vaccinate, considering it an affront to bodily autonomy.
Research published just this week by Queen Mary, University of London, indicates that vaccine hesitancy grows in line with support for populist parties across the political spectrum. But while the populism is important, the politics is usually secondary to the appeal of online anti-vaxxer spaces. The biggest draw is having something concrete to blame for sickness and suffering. People can become horrifically ill horrifyingly quickly, and sometimes doctors don’t understand why. We all know this, but it doesn’t help much when it actually happens to us.
For parents of severely ill or deceased children, a demographic vastly over-represented in these communities, blaming vaccines allows them to believe that they can do something active to protect other children from the suffering their child experienced. It is far more difficult to accept the helplessness of never knowing exactly how or why your child became sick, than it is to accept that their suffering is the fault of something you are able to fight against. Vaccines provide a target.
Where does that leave us? A measles epidemic in Madagascar just killed more than 900 people. To achieve and maintain immunity, we need to reframe the issue for people feeling the lure of the anti-vaxxers. The power of the case against vaccines is largely in its appeal to emotion and agency. It’s this that the pro-vaccine majority needs to address when we make our counter-case.
What happened to me was rare, non-contagious and eminently treatable. None of those things is true for the diseases from which vaccination protects us.