Anti-vaxx and its motivations

One of the first assignments in my new ESC class, Social Movements and Linguistics in Fall 2020, was for the students to find out and write about a social movement, consider argumentation strategies used, and to put it into a wider social and historical context. To guide them in their response, I provided them with some questions to address and, as an example, a short text of my own. I decided to write about the anti-vaccination, or anti-vaxx movement. The movement seems to represent a set of ideas and opinions widely discussed currently both in media and among the public in the context of the fight against the Covid virus. It also seems to have interesting links with other social movements, especially religious fundamentalism, libertarianism and far right political groups. 

The movement loosely comprises people who are against vaccination programmes that protect citizens from serious infectious disease. Anti-vaxxers tend to oppose long-term and almost universal compulsory vaccination for children against measles, whooping cough, meningitis and polio, for example. The relative success of the anti-vaxx movement has reduced the “herd immunity” (a very high percentage of vaccinated people in the community) that protects those who can’t be vaccinated because of an underlying problem with their immune system. Increased numbers of unvaccinated children threaten a return of diseases that people had largely forgotten about. In the developed world, mass vaccination programmes have been in place for decades; however, anti-vaccine sentiments are becoming relatively widespread in many parts of the world. There have been recent outbreaks of measles in New York and an emergency immunization of children on the island of Samoa. In Pakistan, fear of health volunteers has undermined the roll out of the long-established polio vaccine. The anti-vaxx movement is not a particularly structured organization, partly because support is motivated by different factors. It is also not representative of one particular political party ideology (it may attract support from both ends of the political spectrum, but probably from the more extreme ends). 

Some people attracted to the movement recently because of Covid may characterize themselves more narrowly as “vaccine-sceptical” or “vaccine-hesitant”, rather than opposed to all vaccines. In some European countries, almost half of adults say they would refuse a vaccine (about 55-70% compliance is needed for herd immunity). 

The anti-vaxx movement has an interesting history. 

Scepticism about vaccination is not new. The first injectable vaccination was developed in 1798 to prevent smallpox (now extinct except in laboratories) which was very common, often deadly and among survivors, caused massive scarring. In Leicester, UK, in the 1880s there were mass protests against a planned compulsory smallpox prevention programme. Objections at the time were based on more than one argument. We can compare these with arguments used by anti-vaxxers today. 

  • Doctors were not always to be trusted (about a third in the 1880s were unqualified). 
  • People did not always understand the causes of disease. 
  • The vaccine wasn’t necessarily safe. At that time, vaccines were less rigorously tested and subject to quality control than today. 
  • Forcing people to be vaccinated was seen as an invasion, by the state, of personal privacy.  
  • Some poorer people believed that they were being used as expendable guinea pigs by the ruling classes. 

One major recent incident was a crystallizing episode for the modern anti-vaxx movement. In the 1990s, a British physician, Andrew Wakefield, published a fraudulent article in the Lancet medical journal linking the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine to autism in children. The study was later discredited by other researchers and following extensive inquiries and legal cases, Wakefield was eventually struck off the medical register, but by this time the damage was done as parents worldwide began to opt out of immunizing their children. 

Thus, even amongst literate and educated societies, a health scare such as a pandemic can easily articulate, via media misinformation, with other issues to trigger a larger, more powerful movement.  

  • Social media: parents have easy access to negative messages about vaccination online (attraction of “like-minded” people in their media bubbles); 
  • Social media are also an accessible source of conspiracy theories and irrational and unverified claims; 
  • The rhetoric of “natural” healthcare and wellness – rejection of “artificial” substances (including vaccines) in the body (especially of children); 
  • Moral panics fuelled by conspiracy theories about satanism and child trafficking (put out, for example, by QAnon, has been a key factor in support for Donald Trump and the US Republican Party); 
  • Distrust of “big pharma” and other for-profit research organizations, also connected to fears about technology and mind control (the sci-fi narrative); 
  • Anti-government (rejection of state interference in personal choices). Distrust of government-run health agencies (the “nanny” state), interference with the human body as form of social control by autocratic governments (another sci-fi narrative); 
  • Pro-life (anti-abortion) – an anti-science attitude has forged links between anti-vaxx, anti government and anti abortion. 

It may be that the Covid pandemic has reinvigorated the anti-vaxx movement. Understandable fears about the safety of a new vaccine that needs to be administered quickly to most of the population are being articulated on to an existing, complex set of ideas which themselves have a complex history. This presents additional challenges for scientists and healthcare providers who require high levels of compliance to ensure that life for all of us can begin to return to normal. 

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