Last week, The Huffington Post ran an essay by JJ Keith titled "I'm Coming Out...as Pro-Vaccine" that has since gone viral (no disease puns intended!). Although Keith herself says, "This shouldn't be a controversial opinion," vaccination controversy has been on the rise for years. What's notable about that is that the original controversy, surrounding autism, gained considerable traction when anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy became an unofficial spokesperson, telling parents that vaccines and autism are directly linked. Having a celebrity figure in that role suddenly got parents very interested, and believing, and they spread McCarthy's gospel at playgrounds across the country for many years, well past the time that UK physician and anti-vax guru Andrew Wakefield's infamous study was discredited. The truth about Wakefield's study wasn't nearly as relevant, or as pervasive, as McCarthy's stance on the matter -- at least according to those who believed her. And in a sense, this symbolic shift was an early detection in American society that one person's fiction could be thousands of parents' "fact."
The increased discussion surrounding vaccination in the media isn't surprising given our increased usage of social media. While social media can be used to share legitimate articles about vaccines, it can also be used to spread misinformation that gets lots of parents talking. In fact, one study claims that social networks play a significant role in parents' decision to vaccinate their children. What this means is that not only do parents influence each other's opinions through discussion on sites like Facebook, but they influence each other's actions, as well, even when dealing with something as serious as immunization from deadly diseases. That's why essays like Keith's are so important, and why it's a good sign that it's being shared as much as it is. As she writes in her post:
"I'm writing here not to the anti-vaccine activists, but to other people like me. People who vaccinated their children but avoid saying too much about it because it seems like it's hopeless or none of our business. Even if it feels like we'll never change the mind of anti-vaccine advocates -- and we might not -- we can do our best to head off new recruits to their movement."
She makes a valid point: If the internet is a place where strident opinions opposing vaccination abound, the odds of the anti-vaccine movement growing are not in the general public's favor. Extremist views will only gain momentum, as more vocal anti-vaxxers lend their voices to the cause, and more parents will decide not to vaccinate their children based on information that's foggy at best, and baseless at worst.
It's also worth noting that reading conversation threads about vaccination can be a real mindfuck. People get wildly defensive about being either pro- or anti-vaccine, and for good reason. Pro-vaccine folks (like me) believe in the herd immunity theory, which "proposes that, in contagious diseases that are transmitted from individual to individual, chains of infection are likely to be disrupted when large numbers of a population are immune or less susceptible to the disease." We get freaked out when an anti-vaxxer's response to not vaccinating his or her child is, "My parenting is my business, not yours. I'll do what I want with my child, and you do what you want with yours."
After years of posting numerous articles about vaccination on the STFUP Facebook page -- such as an article I shared titled "Anti-vaccine parents caused California's lethal whooping couch epidemic" -- I've seen hundreds of parents assert that what they do with their children is nobody's business but their own. But as JJ Keith poignantly said in her essay, "Vaccines are different from every other parenting issue in that the choices that parents make affect everyone else as well. Vaccines are everyone's business." Let's take a look at a few parents who might beg to differ, and the debates that often play out when opinions and articles about vaccination are discussed on Facebook.
1. Informed Decisions
One of the biggest problems I have with all the vaccine chatter on social media is the way anti-vax parents claim to "know their stuff." When parents who aren't in the medical profession play doctor, peer influence can get dangerous. Just because Chelsea has "done a TON of research" and Jodie backs her up doesn't mean that anything they're saying is true. The weirdest thing about anti-vaccine activists calling bullshit on vaccines and herd immunity is that the movement gets considerably stronger based on a lot of herd immunity principles. The anti-vaxxers are strong in numbers, and sadly there are way too many people who base whether to vaccinate their children on what their friends do. Once a group of people who are involved in a church or a social circle start advocating against vaccination, their peers may follow suit or become suspicious of professional medical recommendations (even when the front page of the Autism Speaks website says, "We strongly encourage parents to have their children vaccinated for protection against serious disease.").
Here's a case of Person A having a strong opinion and calling vaccination "barbaric," and Person B having a strong opinion and calling Person A stupid. I'm guessing that most discussions about vaccination on Facebook either look something like this, or they're chock full of people who all think identically about the subject. I've never been much for the adage about not discussing religion or politics, but I do think that discussions about vaccination on social media are probably more disruptive than they are helpful. There's a difference between sharing an op-ed from The Huffington Post and sharing a documentary that claims to be rooted in facts and mostly serves as propaganda.
3. Pox Parties and Vaccination Responsibility
When Red says, "I'm not going to get in a debate on my wall about it," does she realize that she just posted, "THIS IS WHY YOU VACCINATE ASSHOLES!" one hour prior? I totally agree with her stance on vaccination, but it's worth pointing out that typing in ALL CAPS about a controversial subject on Facebook is code for "Just TRY to debate me on this, bitches."
That said, JJ Keith's essay makes the case that vaccination shouldn't be controversial, so in that sense I can support what Red is saying. Reading headlines like "U.S. measles cases in 2013 may be most in 17 years" should not be the norm, and for people like Red and me, there's nothing to debate. For people like Blue, though, there's a lot more to the discussion. Maybe if Blue and Pink started adopting the idea that we'd all be at risk if the majority of our peers weren't vaccinated, there wouldn't be room for such debate. But until then, let's try to remember that posting about vaccines on Facebook comes with great social responsibility -- much like being a parent does in general.