Facts for the anti-vaxxer: How to challenge a misinformed movement

An essential takedown of the anti-vaccination movement, from its nineteenth-century antecedents to today’s Facebook activists, offering strategies for refuting false claims of friends and family

In Anti-vaxxers: How to Challenge a Misinformed Movement, author Jonathan Berman—Assistant Professor in the Department of Basic Sciences at NYITCOM–Arkansas and national co-chair of the 2017 March for Science—explores the phenomenon of the anti-vaccination movement, recounting its history from its nineteenth-century antecedents to today’s activism.

Much has been written about the anti-vaxxer movement in the United States, including the challenges of persuading Americans to take the coming COVID-19 vaccine. Berman argues that anti-vaccination activism is tied closely to how people see themselves as parents and community members. We’ve pulled together a few facts from Anti-vaxxers to help navigate these challenging conversations.

  • Exemption rates from vaccines based on philosophical or religious beliefs are low; in 2011–2012, exemption rates for the MMR vaccine were less than or equal to 2 percent.
  • More than half of the more than forty thousand cases of measles in Europe in 2018 were in Ukraine.
  • Some Texas schools have vaccine-exemption rates as high as 40 percent.
  • In the eighteenth century, you were more likely to die from communicable diseases than from today’s leading causes of death, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
  • The first recorded intentional vaccination with cowpox occurred in 1774 by Benjamin Jesty, a farmer who used a darning needle to expose pus from an infected cow and then scratch his wife and children.
  • The British Vaccination Act of 1853 required mandatory vaccination for all infants over four months old and triggered the first formal, organized opposition to vaccination.
  • A retrospective study of over 500,000 children found no increased risk of developing autism symptoms in the months following vaccination.
  • The diagnosis of autism increased from 1988 to 1999 by seven times, but the vaccination rate remained relatively stable at about 95 percent.
  • A 2009 survey of over 175,000 Canadian internet users during the swine-flu pandemic found that only 23.4 percent of users considered the H1N1 vaccine to be safe.
  • 2018 saw a 30 percent increase in measles cases and over one hundred thousand measles-related deaths worldwide, attributed by health professionals to the effects of the anti- vaccine movement.
  • Jonas Salk’s vaccine for polio was developed in 1952 and within a few years became one of the most widely tested biologics in history with more than six hundred thousand participants.
  • Experts recommend that flu shots begin annually at six months.
  • In 2017 in the United States there were over 80,000 flu deaths, including 180 babies, children, and teenagers.
  • Although the number of cases of flu that lead to infant death each year are low, hospitalizations of children with flu are rarely recognized and are in the tens of thousands each year.
  • As of 2008 over half of the search results returned for “vaccine safety” and “vaccine danger” were inaccurate.
  • A survey of information about the Zika virus available through popular search engines showed that a variety of conspiracy theories and misinformation appeared among the first results (such as fear of genetically modified mosquitoes and a belief that the Zika virus was a plan to undermine national sovereignty).
  • A 2013 study examining the rates of religious exemption in New York State from 2000 to 2011 indicated that in 2011, although very few sought religious exemptions, only about 0.4 percent of parents, this number was nearly double that of the 0.23 percent of parents seeking religious exemptions in 2000, suggesting a potential rise in this class of exemption.
  • Overall nearly every major religion in the world is either neutral to vaccination, holding no specific position on it, or actively encourages its members to become vaccinated.
  • The goalposts to determine that a vaccine is safe are as high or higher than they are for other kinds of drugs.
  • Only a small fraction of potential drugs or vaccines make it to the stage of clinical trials.
  • Since 1997, an average of $1.4 billion was spent each year on vaccine research and development, 46 percent from vaccine sales, 36 percent from taxes, and 18 percent from risk capital.
  • Providing an HPV fact sheet was enough to increase intent to vaccinate from 49 percent to 70 percent in one research group.

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