For years those opposed to vaccination (antivaxxers) have peen plastering social media with their claims that vaccines are harmful, unnecessary, and ineffective. I had addressed the antivaxxer’s claims before, but I recently had a harsh exchange with some of these people on Twitter. These individuals bombarded me with links to articles and other evidence that “proved” their position was true. After I spent several days going over all this evidence, I found that the vast majority of it was nothing more than a mishmash of mediocre science, innuendo, exaggeration, distortion, and lies. So I organized all the evidence to address their claims. I started writing what I expected to be a two or three part blog post exposing the inaccuracy of the antivaxxer’s claims. However, besides getting me into another fight, I realized my effort wouldn’t really convince anyone that antivaxxers where wrong. I sensed the vaccine issue for most people hinged on more emotional rather than rational variables, and antivaxxers had proven particularly adept at stoking the fears of people and manipulating their emotions.
For years antivaxxers had thrived due to the fact that our society had become complacent. Today’ parents have never had to live with the horrors of smallpox, polio, diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, and other diseases. Even though antivaxxers are a minority, they were vocal and organized. They generated enough doubt in our society to give rise to vaccine hesitancy where parents delay or even refuse to administer some vaccines to their children. Predictably, some of the most contagious diseases like measles started coming back. A few antivaxxers thought that the possibility of a world without vaccines was within their reach, and they sought to articulate for others how that world would look. As it turns out, that was unnecessary. If anybody ever wondered how the world would look without vaccines, the COVID19 pandemic has made it abundantly clear how the world looks without ONE vaccine.
As I write this, the worldwide confirmed cases of COVID19 exceed two million with more than 169,000 deaths, and more than 700,000 of those cases and 41,000 of those deaths are in the United States alone. Cities, states, and entire countries on lockdown, health care systems overwhelmed, and economies devastated. If anyone harbored any type of misgiving about the need for vaccines, that doubt has been vanquished. And COVID19 is not going to go away anytime soon. There are likely to be waves of the virus as a result of reintroduction when social distancing measures are eased. If sufficiently high numbers of people become infected and recover, a degree of what is called herd immunity may be able to protect those who have not been infected. However, only a vaccine will confer total immunity against the virus. There are currently around 41 research groups and companies in the race for a vaccine, and the hope is that one of these will prove sufficiently safe and effective to neutralize the COVID19 threat for the long-term.
Now that everyone has had a first-hand emotional experience of what a disease can do without a vaccine, I fully expect the antivaxxer influence to wane in our society. I am also planning not to write those blog posts rebutting the antivaxxer’s arguments, as they have become moot and are now a waste of my time. But there is one thing that I do have to point out, and that is the damage that antivaxxers have caused, but not just the one related to vaccine hesitancy or the wasting of resources investigating nonexistent connections between things like vaccination and autism.
Vaccines are safe, but they are not risk-free. While being vaccinated is safer than risking having the disease, there are a very small percentage of individuals that will exhibit serious adverse side effects as a result of a vaccine. As vaccines are applied to hundreds of thousands, there will always be a chance that someone with an unknown susceptibility or condition will experience a serious reaction to a vaccine. Here is where antivaxxers could have made a difference for the greater good of society. They could have accepted the effectiveness and safety of vaccines and the need for them, while at the same time advocating for researching vaccine side effects and defining the characteristics of the susceptibility of individuals to developing adverse effects to vaccination. But instead of becoming advocates, they chose to become opponents. Antivaxxers sought out every possible side effect of a vaccine to paint it in the worst possible light. The interest that should exist in the side effects of vaccines has become linked to the antivaxxer position giving it a social stigma. Many people who accept the need for vaccines, but who are genuinely interested in studying and defining the side effects of vaccines, have found out to their chagrin that what they do is often associated with opposition to vaccination. How many people have antivaxxers impacted negatively by creating this stigma may never be known.
It is unlikely however, that the antivaxxers will let up anytime soon. As the world anxiously awaits a COVID19 vaccine, antivaxxers may not have the influence that they once had. But if there is anything I have learned from arguing with climate change deniers, creationists, and proponents of 911 conspiracies, chemtrails, the flat Earth and other irrational skeptics is that they will move the goalposts. They will rationalize their failure, rework their arguments around any new evidence or situation, and fan new conspiracies. However, now that the sheer lunacy of the antivaxxer’s dream of a world without vaccines has been exposed, I am hopeful that society will not be as receptive to their arguments.
The image by TheDigitalArtist from pixabay is free for public use.