A man staring at blank sheet of paper with his head in his hands. (Photo by Topical Press … [+]
Last week the Biden administration was criticized for making some harsh statements about those who refuse to be vaccinated. “For the unvaccinated, we are looking at a winter of severe illness and death — for themselves, their families and the hospitals they’ll soon overwhelm. But there’s good news: If you’re vaccinated and you have your booster shot, you’re protected from severe illness and death,” said Biden.
That statement came in for much criticism on social media, especially by those who took the statement out of context. “You’re not going to convince anyone to get vaccinated with such harsh language,” some scientists complained.
Well, true. But as someone who’s been fighting the anti-vaxxers for years, I recognized the Biden team’s statements as Stage 3 of what I’m calling the Five Stages of Anti-Vax Angst. I understand their frustration, because I’ve been there myself. Let’s go through these stages, shall we?
Stage 1: Disbelief. I first encountered the anti-vax movement, in the early 2000s, when I was leading a research project on sequencing the flu virus (here’s one of our papers), and a reporter asked me, quite seriously, if the flu vaccine could cause autism. Huh? I thought. “Well no,” I reassured him, “where’d you get that idea?” I soon traced the source of his concern back to a now-notorious Lancet paper by Andrew Wakefield, which turned out to be fraudulent and was eventually retracted.
Surely, I thought, the solution is simply to educate people better, and to explain that vaccines are the single greatest medical advance in the history of medicine. With better education, the anti-vax movement will quickly fade.
In Stage 1, vaccine advocates simply can’t believe that significant numbers of people believe stuff about vaccines that simply isn’t true. Alas, though, they do.
Stage 2: Frustration. Unfortunately, merely writing articles explaining the benefits of vaccines is not nearly enough. Officialdom (government agencies like the CDC and NIH) constantly issues statements about the benefits and safety of vaccines, such as this CDC website. Scientists and physicians have written hundreds of articles and countless books explaining how beneficial vaccines are, to no avail. For example, renowned vaccine expert Paul Offit wrote an outstanding book warning of the dangers posed by the anti-vaccine movement, called “Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All.” That book appeared all the way back in 2010, and yet look where we are now.
Just a year after Offit’s book, journalist Seth Mnookin published “The Panic Virus,” an excellent exposé of the fraud behind Wakefield’s original paper, and on how the anti-vax movement has been aided (often unwittingly) by popular media personalities.
What these books and others reveal is that the anti-vaccine movement is loud, committed, and (unfortunately) highly influential. For every article or book written by a clear-headed vaccine advocate (and there are many!), there are multiple articles and books promoting wildly inaccurate claims that vaccines cause …….