I am a nobody to most people, but back in 2019 and the beginning of 2020, I was a viral anti-vaccine “influencer.” Was? Let me explain.
In 2011, after I barely poked myself with antique jewelry, I ran to my doctor’s office to get a tetanus shot. I took a flu shot for school in 2015 without much concern at all, except for the needle part. (The needle freaked me out so much that I started to black out!)
I would say that I was pro-vaccine in that I didn’t give them much thought. I was raised to accept vaccines, and that was that. Vaccines were safe and effective and everyone I knew was vaccinated (at least to my knowledge).
And then one day, fear crept in.
It was innocent enough. It came in the form of an advertisement dedicated to an anti-vaccine documentary series. My husband and I wanted kids, and I knew this subject was important, so we gave in and dumped $200 into the series. Their ad was extremely persuasive. They emphasized how important it was to watch their documentary if you cared at all about your children. Needless to say, I feIl for the guilt trip.
In the documentary series, those interviewed declared how they believe vaccines are linked to nearly every single medical condition you can imagine: autism, SIDS, allergies, ADHD, anxiety, OCD, etc. Quite literally, everything.
And, as a young woman preparing to enter motherhood, I didn’t know any better. They fed me fear and I ate it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I was, from that point on, convinced vaccines could and would cause autism, SIDS, autoimmune diseases, and death. And, like most mothers, I was determined to keep my future children safe.
I continued to study anti-vaccine writings. You can find anything you want to support your claim if only you set your mind to it. And boy, did I find an abundance of stories that terrified me. I decided I was never letting a vaccine near my child or I. Ever.
I was convinced that if a vaccine was injected into her, I would lose her to SIDS that night. I was absolutely convinced. That fear paralyzed me. I can’t speak for every anti-vaxxer, but that fear of vaccines was tangible. I was horrified at the very thought of even one vaccine being given to her. The words “vaccine” and “death” were interchangeable in my mind.
So when my child was born in 2017, we gave her the Vitamin K shot (which I was scolded by some anti-vaxxers for and was told it caused her to have health issues), but we opted to give her no vaccines. My husband and I were confident in our decision.
When she was about 18 months old, in the winter of 2019, I started posting on Facebook about my vaccine hesitancy. To be honest, that was a lie, as I was not “hesitant.” I KNEW I didn’t like vaccines. But I figured looking “hesitant” would make me seem less crazy. When I first posted my views and hesitations on vaccines, my post got shared several hundred times.
I was shocked. Friend requests started pouring in. I didn’t know what was happening. I kept posting my views on vaccines, people kept sharing my posts, and my “audience” grew. It was wild and completely unexpected. I had no idea that this world of anti-vaccine moms and dads existed on social media.
They were so supportive and I made close friends that I will always treasure. This whole experience felt worth it just for the friends I made.
Fast forward to October of 2019, when I dressed as the measles because I was “trying to think of the least scary thing I could be for Halloween.” I am taking this moment to openly tell you that I was the worst.
The. Actual. Worst.
And then it went viral. Like, real viral.
It blew up on both Facebook and Reddit, and several national news outlets picked it up. I got death threats and people begged me to kill myself. It was bad. I was shaken up quite a bit from the whole experience.
A few months later, however, February of 2020 arrived. I started to feel different about things. I was relying on western medicine to treat my endometriosis, I had just had surgery, and had been studying vaccines from a different viewpoint. I started to soften my anti-vax views. But when I posted about this softening of my views, a lot of the anti-vax crowd lost it on me. They were furious and just plain cruel.
It was then I realized a lot of them are very cult-like because they will cast you out if you don’t have an identical belief system as they do. Don’t get me wrong, there are MANY of them that are not this way, whom I love and adore. But a LOT of them are militant about their anti-vax beliefs. They claim to be “pro-medical freedom” but will tear you apart if you make a different medical decision than they would.
They bullied me so hard that I ended up in the ER with a panic attack. It was one of the worst weeks of my life, all because I was softening my views on vaccines.
And then they turned their back on me and condemned me. If I’m being honest, it turned out to be one of the biggest blessings because I then had time to read, think, study and grow on my own without the groupthink influencing me.
And here I am now, having gotten a flu shot this week. I will also be getting my COVID-19 vaccine. We will also be following our pediatrician’s advice for vaccines and our child.
HOW DID I GET HERE?!
That’s really why you’re reading this article, after all. So, allow me to explain the magic that happened in those months after being expelled from the anti-vaccine movement.
First of all, when approaching an anti-vaxxer, you have to realize that there are usually three types: one is a conspiracy theorist, one is scared, and one is an “ex-vaxxer.” Sometimes they are all three. Sometimes they are none of these. Determining what category they fall into is going to help you to know how to approach them.
My category? I was scared. Terrified. I did not want to inject something into my child if I thought it was going to kill her. I wanted to protect my baby with my life. This describes most anti-vaxxers I know. They are fiercely protective of their children, just like pro-vaxxers, and only want to keep them safe. To clarify, this is not a bad person versus good person debate. There are incredible parents who accept and who decline vaccines.
I kept reading horrifying anecdotes from moms who would say that their baby died the day after vaccines. Or that their baby stopped talking the week later. Or that their baby stopped walking the month after.
I finally questioned my anti-vax beliefs when I started digging into each of these anecdotes to find the real truth, instead of blindly trusting stories. I found some of them seemed true. But I started to see that a lot of the “vaccine deaths” were actually due to co-sleeping accidents or other underlying conditions. The timing was just very, very unfortunate. The whole situation was sad. But vaccines inevitably took the blame.
Sometimes the vaccine does cause a serious problem such as anaphylaxis. Vaccines have never claimed to be 100% safe. Sometimes your person is one of the rare statistics and has a severe allergic reaction. Which makes it even harder not to be overcome with fear.
I got to a point where I was so engulfed in every anecdote that I lost my ability to critically think about a situation past my emotions. I would read a story, feel sick to my stomach, and swear to never vaccinate my child.
I was told that my child’s sleep apnea was due to her Vitamin K shot, and that her heart arrhythmia was due to the vaccines I received in my childhood. If someone develops an autoimmune disease 15 years after their vaccines, some anti-vaxxers will still blame the vaccines. People need a reason to explain why they are sick. People need a reason their kid is sick. Vaccines are the perfect scapegoat, no matter how long it has been since they received them.
The next thing that started pulling me away from the anti-vaccine movement was VAERS (the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System). There was something like 48,000 events registered in 2019 alone. But here’s the deal: anyone can report anything—with literally no proof. Causation does not have to be established to make the list.
For example, these are real events listed on VAERS:
Gunshot wound, fight in school, frostbite, infection of mites, electric shock from a hair straightener, drowning, damaged hair from incorrect hair bleach mixture, sunburn, tested positive for an STD, sports injury (dodge ball), sports injury (football), suicidal ideation due to breakup with boyfriend, murder, motor vehicle accident, and many, many more.
Some anti-vaxxers use VAERS as one of their strongest arguments, but as you can see, by doing this they are able to claim that a sunburn is a vaccine injury. Which, it’s just—not.
The next thing I started studying, and again what many anti-vaxxers use in their arguments, is the vaccine package inserts. They use it as a “gotcha” argument. I used this argument too, and was very confident in it.
The problem, however, is that the package insert is a legal document, one that has to list any adverse event that occurred subsequent to the vaccine or during clinical trials or post-marketing studies. No causal relationship has to be proven, but they legally have to list everything that happens. The Gardasil vaccine insert, for example, lists gunshot wounds, car wrecks, and suicide as an adverse event.
But really, the ingredients were the biggest thing that caused me fear.
The ingredients are a lot less scary to me now that I have put them in context. Looking at aluminum: babies receive about 10 mg of aluminum their first six months of life if they are breastfed and 30 mg if they are formula fed, but they only receive 4 mg of aluminum from vaccines in their first six months of life on the current vaccine schedule.
I forced myself to examine formaldehyde. Everyone has detectible formaldehyde in their bloodstream, or about 2.5 micrograms per milliliter of blood. If you take an average weight of a 2 month old (11 pounds) with an average blood volume of 85 milliliters per kilogram, the total quantity found naturally in that infant’s blood would be about 1 milligram. 1 milligram of formaldehyde is ten times that which is in a vaccine.
Ultimately, what finally changed my mind was having people reach out, listen to my fears, and talk to me. The thousands of mean comments didn’t change my mind. In fact, those comments made me think I was even more in the right. If I had enemies, after all, then I must be doing something right. Those awful comments had the opposite effect of the pro-vaccine person’s intentions.
But when friends calmly and patiently explained the science to me, showing they cared more about me than about changing my mind, my mind started to open up to the fact that I could be wrong. I started reading books instead of Facebook posts. One book that really helped was Vaccines and Your Child by Paul Offit and Charlotte A Moser.
Things started seeming less scary and making more sense.
But the final straw that broke the camel’s back was when I was hospitalized due to bruising everywhere and endometriosis. The care I received from the medical team was amazing. The western medicine they gave me helped me so much. I realized many anti-vaxxers are anti-vax based on the theory that scientists and doctors are in on a conspiracy to kill or maim children for money.
It dawned on me that I definitely don’t believe that and am not a conspiracy theorist at all. There is no way that thousands of doctors and scientists are out to kill or maim our kids. It’s statistically impossible. Most of them are amazing people with huge hearts for kids.
I want to apologize for anybody I hurt during my anti-vax days. I was harsh, sarcastic, and extremely hurtful. I know that there is a lot of ableism in the anti-vax movement, so just know this: your autistic child was born perfectly. Do not let anyone tell you that they need to be cured or fixed. I am so sorry that I ever promoted ableism. I would like to ask the pro-vaccine and medical community’s forgiveness for my flippant attitude, the Dunning Kruger effect that I put on like a a pair of shoes daily, and my measles costume that downplayed that disease. I am so sorry.
To sum it up, I will leave you with two suggestions from my own experience as a dedicated anti-vaxxer.
Because they have seen a rise in autism and health issues over the past several decades, and because no one has offered an answer as to why that is the case, anti-vaxxers jump to vaccines. Because, after all, there has also been a rise in vaccines.
They do not typically seem to understand that correlation does not equal causation. According to Buzzfeed, if correlation did equal causation, then ice cream consumption leads to murder and eating organic food causes autism. It can get really ridiculous, really quickly.
But until another answer for the rise in health issues and autism is offered to anti-vaxxers (an answer they accept), then they will always blame vaccines.
When you ask an anti-vaxxer questions, be ready to listen. Listen to them as a whole person with a unique mind and unique life experiences different from your own. Try to find the root of why they are anti-vax. It is easy to name call and jump to defensiveness, but that will just make the gap bigger and stronger. Gentleness and addressing their real, actual root concerns, are what is going to make change possible.
So, here I am. Getting my flu shot as I recover from a small case of pneumonia. Planning to trust doctors and scientists from here on out. Wish me luck on my journey—I am looking forward to seeing where it will lead me.
Heather Simpson is a mom to a 3 year old dinosaur loving, wild child little girl. She used to work in film and television, but now writes from experience in her free time. Hear more from Heather by listening to her guest appearance on the Voices for Vaccines Vax Talk podcast.