People have opposed vaccines since their invention. But in recent years, there has been a worldwide rise in anti-vaxxers – people refusing to vaccinate themselves and their children. The movement has become so popular that it has led to the resurgence of the deadly measles virus.

Measles outbreaks have happened across the U.S., where the virus was said to have been eradicated in 2000. The spread of preventable diseases such as measles, cholera, and diphtheria is directly related to misinformation. Especially in our social media-dependent era, false information can spread much like a contagious virus itself.

Ironically, one of science’s greatest successes are vaccines. The defining moment that gave momentum to the anti-vaccination movement was Andrew Wakefield’s notorious 1998 paper, which incorrectly linked the measles vaccine to autism. Wakefield was exposed as falsifying data and his work was retracted. A plethora of research has since discredited his results.

Yet the myth has persisted. Celebrities, journalists, and politicians have also weighed in. Some are pro-vaccination, others are anti-vaccination, and some advocate pro-choice in the decision to vaccinate or not. Celebrities like Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy, and U.S. President Donald Trump have all supported the anti-vaccination movement.

Along with celebrity condemnation, unsuspecting parents come across internet sites and Facebook posts that publish misleading and inaccurate information. These posts are convincing enough to influence their decisions to vaccinate. We also now see articles that present “both sides” to the vaccine “controversy.” These articles give equal weight to the misinformed vaccine opponents and qualified scientists. This underscores the public health imperative at stake.

This underscores the public health imperative at stake.

With the increasing prevalence of anti-vaccination views among parents, the recent measles outbreaks in the U.S., Canada, and throughout Europe are a testament to the fact that vaccines do work. Infants and people with health and immunodeficiency barriers can be physically unable to be vaccinated. These unwilling individuals exacerbate the threat of the anti-vaccination movement. While once protected by “herd immunity,” they are now susceptible to viruses, and may suffer needlessly from preventable diseases.

Autonomy to make one’s own decisions regarding their health is important. But refusing to vaccinate is unfair to those surrounding the unvaccinated individual. Not vaccinating your child puts other kids at risk, which then puts others at risk, then others, and so on. Not only these parents potentially preventing their child from having a healthy life and future, their decision may harm the lives and futures of other children. This is no longer autonomy.

Understanding the anti-vaxxers

The fear of children developing autism in response to vaccination is an understandable concern – despite being completely baseless. But it should not be a deterrent for vaccination. Even if autism was a potential side effect, it is problematic that some parents would rather have their child at risk of lethal diseases instead of developing autism.

Are these parents making that statement that the life of an individual on the autism spectrum is less meaningful?

We have access to more information than ever before. Yet misinformation is spread more than ever before, and people believe it just as easily. Anti-vaxxers often spread the idea that medication and vaccines are designed to make kids sick. Health care providers and pharmaceutical companies supposedly then profit off of making them better again.

A growing segment of the public now mistrusts the government and health care providers regarding vaccine safety and efficacy. Regardless of expertise, people tend to take the advice of family and friends over healthcare providers. Whether they are scientifically valid or not, the fear of developing side effects is very real among some parents.

It may be emotions rather than facts that convince people not to vaccinate. The problem here is that in our minds when we have a health problem, we expect a perfect solution that will magically fix everything and leave no side effects. We as a population have become so risk-adverse that we expect that no medication or treatment will harm us in any way. This is an impossible standard to obtain.

Combatting the movement

The future of opposing the anti-vaccination movement will involve educating the public in a completely new way. Public health institutions must train individuals to communicate information. In turn, they must spread this information educate citizens about the safety and efficacy of immunization. Only then can we allow for the advancement of vaccine development, which has been so thoroughly impeded by anti-vaccination movements, such as the Lyme disease vaccine.

Unfortunately, society has seen a shift from evidence-based medicine to media-based misinformation. A population of parents has yet to understand the relationship between vaccination uptake, immunity, and eradication of preventable diseases. Presenting the facts to parents is not working. Maybe a different approach, one focused on better understanding how people think about science and medicine, will offer some solutions.

By Azizia Wahedi

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.