HealthPseudoscience

Meet the Pro-Vax Bullies

As National Infant Immunization Week winds down, it seems like a good time to take a good look at the Vaccine Bullies. According to countless anti-vaccine blogs and memes they’re everywhere, pushing a pro vax agenda and stepping all over parents’ freedom.

It turns out that pro-vaccine bullies in my town are super easy to find. Just hang out on the parent side of the two-way mirror at my kids’ therapy center during a developmental playgroup.

While the average vaccination rate at our local schools is near 95%, here at the playgroup it’s closer to 70%, so statistically it’s the last place you’d expect pro-vaxxers to hold court, and yet here they are.

Meet the Real vaccine bullies.

Let’s go around the room, shall we?

There are the parents of the child who caught meningitis a few weeks after birth. You know, before he could get the vaccine all babies get that is 90% effective at preventing it. Meningitis kills up to 25% of all babies who catch it. The meningitis caused physical disabilities that mean years of surgeries ahead of him, and learning and speech delays in the present. He is on an extended vaccination schedule per doctor’s orders.

Funny thing, his parents get a bit snippy when people bemoan the dangerous side effects of vaccines.

Take a look at the parents of the two medically fragile children who are immunocompromised. For these two families, keeping well is deadly serious. In group, we follow a few simple best-practices to help protect them: wash our kids’ hands, vaccinate, and never ever come to class sick.

These parents have no patience or time for the debates and discussions surrounding vaccines, because for them there is no debate–herd immunity keeps their kids alive. They aren’t swayed by anti vaccination evidence or arguments and tend to be pretty strict about their children’s exposure to the unvaccinated.

common meme linking vaccination and autism

common meme linking vaccination and autism

Then there is the dad of the child who has Autism. When asked if he vaccinated his son, the man says “yep.” As if he hasn’t even considered the (web)pages and pages of research pointing out the obvious connection between ASD and vaccines. As if he somehow thinks that it is better to vaccinate a healthy child who is non-neurotypical than it would be skip the vaccine because the Interwebs said so. Inconceivable!

Some parents have children are healthy now, but who nearly died in infancy: such as babies born with life-threatening birth defects, or micro-preemies. These children were at a much higher risk of death by any disease when they were infants, and some are on extended schedules on doctor’s orders.

That’s where I fit in. My sons were statistically unlikely to survive to birth, and they have fallen on the good side of the odds so many times I catch myself holding my breath as I wait for the other shoe to drop. I’ve written about my bafflement regarding parents of healthy infants who don’t vaccinate (here).

Finally, there are the parents whose children are otherwise healthy, but have developmental delays that cause them to be in therapy. These children are as likely to survive most childhood diseases as your typical toddler. And yet, they immunize on time, and have no patience for those who don’t.

What makes these parents advocates for vaccinations as much as those who have much more on the line? I suspect it’s the fact that herd immunity isn’t abstract in this room. On the other side of that wall are their children’s friends who will die if they get seriously ill. All the woo-filled articles decrying herd immunity as a big-pharma sham amount to nothing when you have played patty-cake with a kid who actually needs it.

Bullying, Nastiness and Insanity

meme credited to Tui Heights Health

meme credited to Tui Heights Health

“But THESE aren’t bullies!” I imagine you saying. “Bullies are people who troll and get in flame wars. Bullies are big and mean and powerful.”

I know, right?

You’d kind of expect that people being called “bullies” would be engaging in, well. . .bullying behavior. But, when I waded through anti-vaxxer blogs, most posts were about:

  • “bullying doctors” who try to convince parents to get vaccinated or who won’t take unvaccinated children in their clinics (free market = choose another doctor)
  • “bullying parents” who won’t let their kids play with unvaccinated children
  • “bullying lawmakers” who try to pass legislation requiring kids to be vaccinated to attend school or get state aid.

For example, in a January 23rd rant, Kate Tietje at Modern Alternative Momma wrote “There is bullying, nastiness, insanity from every corner. . .More and more are having to read tirades in their Facebook newsfeeds about how stupid “anti-vaxxers” are, or endure personal berating over their family’s choices.” (note: Science Babe neatly shreds Tietje’s logic, and at Grounded Parents we’ve been similarly skeptical)

As part of her tirade, Ms. Tietje is appalled that parents are “refusing to allow unvaccinated children into church nurseries, playgroups, and more.” She encourages her readers to “Stand up for your rights, or others will take them from you.”

Back in our waiting room, we bullies are not a friendly or tolerant audience for those who choose not to vaccinate for other than medical reasons (and by medical, we’re talking a doctor’s orders here). No one has time for that.

Example of a "doctor bully" image

Example of a “doctor bully” image (from age of autism)

Tietje is right about part of this: unvaccinated-by-choice families are unwelcome in our circle, because a parent’s right to not vaccinate is sure as hell not going outweigh a kids’ right to live past toddlerhood. This isn’t bullying. It’s survival.

The place where she and so many anti-vaccination advocates who play the bully card get it wrong is this: by advocating for the abolishment of personal exemptions and avoiding unvaccinated famiiles, these parents are not the pro-vaccine equivalent of anti-vax parents advocating for the right to skip out on vaccines. In no way is this a balanced equation.

All the evidence is on the side of the parents in that play group waiting room.

The real consequences of diminishing herd immunity are backed by decades of research by reputable scientific institutions, repeated debunking of anti-vax claims, and the effects of these diseases on kids who can’t be vaccinated are medically documented. Whereas vaccine injury stories are often rife with inaccuracy and assumptions as writer Kathy McGrath explains, and the evidence behind anti-vaccine positions falls apart on close examination.

We seem to be at the beginning of a slow turn toward vaccination as a greater social good. Legislation removing personal exemptions for children attending public schools and receiving public support have gained traction. I suspect that this turning tide will herald an increase in the bully label as many anti-vaccination proponents feel increasingly marginalized and under attack.

Websites like voices for vaccines, shot by shot, help show that families who vaccinate are clearly not bullies, but I think it’s important that parents like those in that waiting room keep talking in person to anti-vaxxers despite the frustration, keep sharing stories and resources, and just keep trying. Maybe a personal connection will reach people unmoved by overwhelming data.

I may be naive to suggest this, but maybe some will come around to see what the many of us already do: vaccines save lives.

Because for those of us who wait on the other side of the glass, all the hyperbole, bad science, and “friend of a friend” stories aren’t going to trump decades of research combined with two simple facts: some kids in that room are alive today entirely because someone chose to immunize, and one of them is permanently disabled because someone didn’t.

(featured image is a still shot from the 1917 movie “Rebecca of Sunnybrook farm,” taken from Wikipedia)

Edited to remove an image that was used as an example of the extreme end of the bullying accusations. The image from an ad campaign in Australia equates vaccination with rape and can be found here. Trigger Warning: violent imagry and text. 4/27/15

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Deek

Deek

Deek lives with her husband, twin sons and two cats in the northwest. She teaches and writes about parenting in the NICU, her experiences as a parent of micro-preemies and skeptical parenting.

3 Comments

  1. April 27, 2015 at 11:19 am —

    I linked this to a friend, and she said ‘Good article, but I could have done without that last “PSA” pic. Or a trigger warning on it. I’m not a survivor and I found it skin-crawlingly uncomfy.’ I agree. I know it’s one the antis made and have been passing around, and I’ve seen it in other contexts and thought the exact same thing. Even a content note to warn people there’s a potentially upsetting image would be nice, to let people know it’s coming?

    I also agree it’s a great article. The good(?) news is some of them are coming around to see vaccines save lives, hopefully not too late in the recent case of anti-vax parents who changed their minds, scheduled vaccination appointments for their kids, and then their kids contracted pertussis just before the initial appointment.

    • April 27, 2015 at 12:27 pm —

      Peep, please apologize to your friend for me.
      After reading her comments and yours, I decided to simply remove the image and link to it in the notes at the bottom. As a rule, I don’t make changes that alter content/intent, but this image didn’t contribute to the content, and certainly its strength as an example of the extreme end of the bullying accusations doesn’t outweigh it’s triggering effect.

  2. August 14, 2015 at 2:43 pm —

    You forgot the autistic adults. There are plenty of those that spend time debunking anti-vaccine myths.

    Signed, an adult on the spectrum.

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