When I hear the term “anti-vaxxer,” the associated image in my mind is crystal clear — I picture a green juice-drinking, dairy-free, vegan wellness mama absolutely set on only allowing the most natural things to enter her child's body. Personally, I resonate with this woman. I am 100% inoculated and will vaccinate my hypothetical future children, but still, I’m wary. Despite this, I find myself falling on the, “I’m doing this to keep other people safe” side of the aisle. The optimist in me refuses to believe in the conspiratorial smoke-filled room where politicians and doctors meet to formulate Orwellian plotlines. So, when I think about this granola-eating mama as the ultimate anti-vaxxer, I am right, but I’m also neglecting to see the whole picture. Most people in the United States have a similar association with anti-vaxxers, and they too would be wrong.
While many of us might associate anti-vaxxers or vaccine-hesitancy with the 1990s, its origins can be traced back to the 18th century when people began getting inoculated against smallpox. Perhaps one of the first anti-vaxxers in American history was Deborah Read, Benjamin Franklin’s wife. The couple had a fraught 40-year relationship that ultimately resulted in a seventeen-year estrangement that “stemmed from a disagreement over whether or not to inoculate their son, Francis, against smallpox; he died of the disease in 1736 at the age of 4,” never having received the inoculation. While scientific evidence for the efficacy of vaccinations was still underdeveloped at the time, Franklin spoke of his son’s death, saying:
This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if the child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.
Fast forward to the 21st century, an anti-vaxxer can be loosely defined as a person “who disagrees with the use of vaccines for a variety of reasons; for example, some view vaccines as an infringement on their human rights.” Vaccine skepticism is more prevalent than ever before. The Journal for Pediatric Pharmacology and Therapeutics reports that the reasons parents choose not to vaccinate can be broken down into four main categories: “religious reasons, personal beliefs or philosophical reasons, safety concerns, and a desire for more information from healthcare providers.” One of the primary safety concerns is connected to a British physician by the name of Andrew Wakefield. In 1998, Wakefield wrote an article for the Lancet, associating autism with the measle, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. He claimed that the vaccine “may predispose to behavioral regression and pervasive developmental disorder in children.” MMR vaccination rates began to drop precipitously and the study was almost immediately refuted by scientists worldwide.
So, why does any of this matter? Despite the humorous satire of hippie-adjacent anti-vaxxer moms on comedy sketch shows, vaccine hesitancy has taken on a much larger role in our society. After all, we are on the brink of possibly receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, and reluctance to take this vaccine could have wide-spread impacts on one’s community. While it is unlikely that there will be a government mandate for inoculation, two-thirds of the US population needs to get vaccinated in order for herd immunity to be reached, so without a government mandate, some sort of convincing argument and incentive will need to be put in place. According to the Pew Research Center, 60% of Americans now say they would receive the COVID-19 vaccine, up from only 50% in September. Similar to the debate about whether or not to wear a face mask, it seems that the conversation around vaccines often times circles back to a question of individual freedom versus communal good. The singular image of what an anti-vaxxer looks like is not only unhelpful, it can also be harmful. So, let’s paint a fuller picture of who exactly we’re talking about when we discuss anti-vaxxers —
Black communities in the United States have been recalcitrant to receive vaccinations for decades. White adults are far more likely to be vaccinated than Black adults are, “perhaps because the latter have less access to medical care, and decades of maltreatment have eroded their trust in the medical establishment.” This skepticism in African American communities is particularly linked to the mid-70s and the Tuskeegee Study — when 600 sharecroppers, 399 of which had syphilis were used by scientists in unethical medical experiments. The health institution knew that these men were suffering from syphilis, but instead of treating them with readily available penicillin, they decided to withhold the treatment and study the disease instead. This horrific historical event has reinforced nascent vaccine skepticism in the Black community, which continues to permeate public health decision making today. According to recent surveys, “Black people are disproportionately getting sick and daying of the coronavirus, but surveys suggest they’re more hesitant to get a vaccine than other racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.”
Additionally, predominantly white anti-vaxxer groups and organizations have targeted Black communities, especially lower-income groups in order to grow support for their movement. For example, ten years ago in Minnesota, an anti-vaxxer group hosted the discredited researcher Andrew Wakefield, to talk to the state’s Somali immigrant community. Following this effort to promote anti-vaccination sentiment, “vaccination rates among Somalis plummeted, and a few years later, the community suffered a large measles outbreak.”
Crunchy Granola Parents
Ah yes — our token image of the countercultural anti-vaxxer, living off the land and raising naked barefooted babies. These are the parents that believe nothing but the natural goes into their children. While many of these parents are simply naturalists, many of them very much believe Andrew Wakefield’s debunked study that posited a link between inoculations and autism. This particular school of thought is likely linked with a generation being sent the empowering message to take control over their health — to count their steps and calories and to hack their physical health. Unfortunately, many take this up a notch by resisting vaccinations and vehemently opposing government-mandated vaccination requirements for children.
This specific frame of mind requires a distinctly individualistic and bourgeoisie sensibility. If you are against vaccinating your child, you are not only putting your own child at risk, you’re putting other immuno-compromised children at risk. Vaccine hesitancy being linked with class and socioeconomic status is backed up by research that shows a large percentage of anti-vaxxers are “college-educated white woman making decent money.” Or, as the Philadelphia Inquirer explained,
“Anti-vaxxers are often described as middle- and upper-class women who breast-feed their children, shop at Whole Foods, endlessly scour the web for vaccine-related conversations, and believe that their thinking supersedes that of doctors; typically their families earn more than $75,000 a year.”
Fearing Big Pharma
Researchers also suggest that some vaccine-skeptics “suspect that the pharmaceutical industry is in cahoots with doctors and the government, in a dark cycle of profit and secrecy.” While the theory that vaccines provide massive profits to big pharma might seem convincing, it's simply untrue. Pharmaceutical companies actually don’t generally earn a large profit margin from vaccinations. But, as Olga Khazan said in The Atlantic, it is “perhaps understandable in a world where drug companies actually did, through lies and greed, spark an opioid epidemic that has killed nearly half a million people.” At the end of the day, the “opaque and extremely expensive healthcare industry does not inspire confidence” in many Americans.
Texans for Vaccine Choice
If you thought you could pinpoint vaccine hesitation to one side of the aisle, you’d be sorely mistaken. Anti-vaccination sentiment knows no bounds. Take, for example, the Facebook group turned political action community called Texans for Vaccine Choice, who claim to:
Promote the preservation of personal liberties and informed consent by opposing measures to limit vaccine choice rights or discriminate against those who exercise such rights.
This mission statement could so easily be copied and pasted straight onto a women’s right pro-choice page. In an extraordinary twist, this predominantly conservative Republican organization has repurposed the Pro-Choice verbiage for their political movement. In a truly comical twist of political fate, they are more or less saying — “my body, my choice.”
There we have it, anti-vaccination sentiment permeates a multitude of socioeconomic, educational, and political lines. Despite being most prevalent in middle- and upper-class white households, the hesitancy to get inoculated crosses all racial and class lines. In 2020, we have seen first-hand how our fellow Americans view themselves in relation to ourselves. This year has been ripe with conspiracy theories — ranging from dangerous to downright laughable. All politicians have a role to play in encouraging their constituents to trust the science, but especially Republicans, because there is a correlation between being Republican and questioning vaccines. Research has shown that between Republicans and Democrats, Republicans are less likely to receive higher education degrees, and Pew Research Center statistics show that those who are less likely (or able) to pursue higher education are more likely to believe conspiracy theories and those who believe conspiracy theories are more skeptical of vaccinations.
During this year, it is hard to deny that our individual choices have collective consequences. Science, whether we’re talking about climate change or vaccinations, is not political. Yet, “vaccine skepticism spans from Goop-reading Californians to the ultra-Orthodox Jews of New York. In some ways, being anti-vaccine is a deeply American sentiment: It’s the stubborn belief that individuals know better than the government.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, anti-vaxxers have latched onto the virus to bolster their movement. In this bewildering world where everything seems to become a conspiratorial hoax, libertarianism and individualism sometimes seem more revered than the collective good of our nation. It may be about time to reach across the proverbial aisle and have conversations to promote a better understanding of the public health benefits and concerns around vaccinations.