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Communicable Pseudoscience:

Misinformation and Anti-Vaccination



        Communicable disease has been responsible for many deaths throughout human history. Most notably the black death in Europe and the pandemic that swept through the Americas after European settlers brought new pathogens to the Native Americans living there. Smallpox, polio, and measles ran rampant through almost every human population from the renaissance until the invention of vaccines in 1796. Edward Jenner conducted the first immunization by siphoning pus from a cowpox lesion and injecting it into an eight-year-old boy. Incredibly, when Jenner later injected the boy with the live smallpox virus, he did not become infected (Stern, 2005). Jenner had discovered how to prevent disease, a miracle by every sense of the word. However, some groups were unhappy with Jenner’s discovery, especially once governments began writing laws forcing people to get vaccinated. This has been the unfortunate history of vaccines and led to the spawning of the anti-vaccination movement.

         Nowadays, when people think of the anti-vaccination lobby, they typically think of “anti-vaxxers”. This continuation of older movements was born out of a 1998 study by a fraudulent scientist who linked the MMR vaccine with autism. Currently, those that hate preventative medicine are living in a revitalized period as a number of celebrities and even some disgraced scientists have indicated that they support people’s choice to refuse vaccination for easily preventable communicable diseases. Jennifer McCarthy, Donald Trump, Jim Carrey, and Andrew Wakefield have all expressed either doubt or extreme anger at the prevalent usage and track record of vaccines. To fully understand the modern anti-vaxxer movement, we must look back to the historical basis for the movement, the real science behind vaccines, and how the misinformation behind anti-vaccination is spread.

         The history of anti-vaccination began in 1853, when England enacted a law to make smallpox immunization compulsory. Outcry exploded throughout small villages (e.g.: Ipswich) and led to the formation of anti-immunization leagues in Britain. As vaccines became more common in Europe, other cities formed their own leagues to combat compulsory vaccination. In the early days of vaccines, most anti-vaccination leagues were either highly religious and concerned that preventing disease went against God’s plan for humanity or influenced by early liberalism, arguing that government had no right to force vaccines on a person (Wolfe, 2002). These two historical concerns have held true for modern anti-vaxxers, as they are typically either highly religious or America’s definition of the “libertarian”. Christian Scientists are the best-known group to refuse medical care of all kinds, though other religious sects hold similar beliefs. Thus, anti-vaccination is highly correlated with religious and political values leading to the spread of pseudoscience often stemming from familial-passed beliefs or insular communities. Children are socialized by their parents to reject the science behind vaccines as dangerous and life-threatening.

           Most interestingly, relatively few popular press articles exist online that assert an anti-vaccination position. It appears that this form of misinformation is spread by oral communication and individuals on social media rather than mass media. Though it is rare, a few doctors write regularly about their fears concerning immunization. Dr. Areti can be found spouting lies about the nature of vaccines on tabloid-esque websites, discussing “resonance of the body” as a legitimate medical process that is hindered by vaccines (Areti, 2017). The definition of a “quack”, Dr. Areti uses a lot of medical argot, yet lacks any substantial concerns or reasoning. In fact, some of his assertions are simply wrong (e.g.: stating that a physiological response to a vaccine weakens a person’s immune system permanently). This isn’t particularly strange for the world of misinformation and is demonstrative of the way that fraudsters everywhere fool those without a scientific background or education.

           The best-known doctor who has supported anti-vaccination is Dr. Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield wrote a research article in The Lancet in 1998, erroneously linking the MMR vaccine to autism. The article was swiftly popularized and set off the most recent fervor in the anti-vaccination community. As other doctors began to replicate his study, they were unable to obtain the same results, leading to the eventual retraction of the article and Wakefield losing his medical license in Britain. Despite being shunned by the professional medical community, Wakefield has more recently found sanctuary as an advocate for anti-vaccination movements (Sathyanarayana, 2011). Even today, Wakefield regularly gives talks on why his study is correct, and all other doctors are liars. He is on record stating that pharmaceutical companies have targeted him and paid employees to post attacks against him on internet blogs. He is perhaps the saddest modern case of a scientist refusing to uphold not only the scientific method, but also the Hippocratic oath. 


            After the advent of the Wakefield study fallout, the modern anti-vaxxer movement got underway with the “Green Our Vaccines” protests. Jennifer McCarthy championed the movement when she accused the MMR vaccine of giving her son autism. Her then partner, Jim Carrey, took a slightly less controversial approach and focused on the thimerosal found in many vaccines. Thimerosal is a mercury-based preservative added to vaccines in order to ensure the dead virus’ successful preservation until injection. Though mercury is harmful in even small doses, the risks involved with contracting measles, mumps, and rubella are greater than the potential damage a tiny dose of mercury could cause even a child. This group was one of the first to raise legitimate scientific concern over vaccine use; though when studied further, there was no apparent cause for concern. This group eventually evolved into the current anti-vaxxers.

           The largest problem with misinformation about vaccines is that it is rarely spread after childhood (though this is not always the case). Fear of vaccines is passed from parent to child through political and religious socialization from a very early age. The actual percentage of the population that reject vaccination as a legitimate medical practice is quite low. 9% of the sampled American population believes that the measles vaccine is dangerous (Pew Research Center, 2015). The issue is that this 9% of the population is fairly consistent due to early socialization, meaning that it will take longer for this value to change. Furthermore, even a small unvaccinated portion of the population can seriously affect those that cannot rely on vaccines for their own immunity. Those with pre-existing autoimmune disorders, the HIV virus, the elderly, newborn babies, and those undergoing chemotherapy are already much more susceptible to dangerous communicable diseases.

             A fully vaccinated or heavily vaccinated population has what is called “herd immunity”. Herd immunity refers to the fact that if almost everyone is vaccinated, even someone who contracts a disease will be less likely to spread it. People with faulty or diminished immune systems rely on herd immunity to ensure that a disease does not reach them and ultimately kill them. In this way, a person who gets vaccinated is not only helping themselves but a variety of other humans at risk (Vaccine Knowledge Project, 2018).

             It is unlikely that we will ever reach a point at which everyone will be vaccinated, as free will dictates that there will always be voices of dissent about even the most beneficial topics. However, the misinformation concerning vaccination can be limited and battled with good vigor by the medical community. There are already a number of professional advocacy non-profits for vaccines, which is a good start in eliminating the pseudoscience in the anti-vaxxer lobby. However, the official nature of these organizations can be frightening to those already involved with anti-vaccination because their worldview typically sets up the government and pharmaceutical companies as part of a bigger nationwide conspiracy. Thus, these groups fit into their worldview as evil oppressors that tell lies, not the benevolent spreaders of correct information that they legitimately are. This poses a major difficulty, as it is difficult to teach those that refuse to be taught. One solution may be to form a multiplicity of grassroots movements with those at a local level who can disseminate correct information to their neighbors and friends. That way, anti-vaxxers must either change their worldview, ignore the information, or confront their friend. If the grassroots movement was persistent enough, the second option would slowly disappear as more pressure would be placed on the anti-vaxxer to confront their cognitive dissonance.

              We may never rid our world of pseudoscience and misinformation, but we can certainly try. The biggest issue currently is that there is not enough widespread, popular proliferation of the correct science and information. The burden now falls to scientists, doctors, students, professors, and the most highly educated sector of our community to keep pushing the empirical, the logical, and the truthful. There is no conspiracy, the aliens are not going to touch down in saucer ships, that reading of War of the Worlds by Orson Welles was not a true story, and spaghetti doesn’t grow on trees. It’s amazing that people believe in a massive pre-hominid wandering the woods. It’s amazing that people think that the Earth is flat! We as scientists must not squelch the brilliant imagination of young and old minds alike, but rather must push the benefits of understanding and following science (and the detriments to ignoring it). Vaccination is important to the health of our entire community and cannot be placed into the same category as bigfoot, reptile-men, and the Loveland frogman. There are real, palpable repercussions to ignoring this science, and we must try harder to popularize the truth.

Works Cited

Areti, S.V. (2017). 7 Reasons Why Vaccines Are Bad! Practo.

Pew Research Center. (2015). 83% Say Measles Vaccine Is Safe for Healthy Children. Pew Research Center. 

Sathyanarayana Rao, T.S. and Chittaranjan, A. (2011). The MMR vaccine and autism: Sensation, refutation, retraction, and fraud. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 53(2), 95-96. doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.82529.

Stern, A.M. and Markel, H. (2005). The History Of Vaccines And Immunization: Familiar Patterns, New Challenges. Health Affairs, 24(3).

Vaccine Knowledge Project. (2018). Herd Immunity (Herd Protection). Vaccine Knowledge Project.

Wolfe, R.M. and Sharp, L.K. (2002). Anti-vaccinationists past and present. BMJ, 325(7361), 430-432.

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