by Rina Rosewell
I was anti-vaccine before it went mainstream. Before COVID, before Wakefield, and even before the internet. It all started in South Africa in 1994, with the birth of my first child. I would describe it as traumatic, with the doctor disregarding many of my concerns. The delivery was difficult, my newborn jaundiced and emerging with a wound on his head. He would turn out fine, but the experience set in motion a distrust of medicine.
As a baby, my son was sick fairly often. But when I went to my provider, I never felt like anyone was listening to me. They were quick to prescribe antibiotics without much of an explanation, which he spat up. I’d wonder what the point was. My ambivalence was not helped by a husband who was anti-doctor.
Rina in the hospital, after the birth of her first child.
In 1995, I met someone who recommended a magazine called Mothering. She gave me several copies and I began reading their anti-vaccine content. It pushed me to find a new doctor who was into homeopathy. Soon enough, this became a lifestyle. When my husband and I moved to Seattle, we gravitated towards the emerging “natural health” scene. When we moved to Germany, we found another walled-off community. We were even homeschooling our kids, despite German law.
My second child, a daughter, wouldn’t receive any vaccines. By then I’d gone further than anti-vax. This was around when 9/11 had just happened and you started to get some really weird conspiracy theories. I went down the AIDS denial rabbit hole. Maybe if QAnon had been around, I’d have been roped into that too. I hope not. But evidently it still wasn’t enough for the 9/11 truthers who scoffed at my skepticism: “Oh, you’re probably pro-vaccine too aren’t you?”
As this was happening, the internet was also becoming mainstream. I had been getting all my information from sources like Mothering and friends in the natural health scene. I couldn’t dig into their claims until I got online. That’s when I started following pro-vaccine advocates, most notably, a doctor and blogger named David Gorski.
Realizing the Harms of Science Denial
The unraveling of an AIDS conspiracy brought me to Gorski. Back in 2001, Mothering magazine did a cover feature a very famous AIDS denialist named Christine Maggiore. She had been the one to pull me into that movement, proudly rejecting HIV drugs while posing as an expectant mother.
I decided to poke around online and see what she was up to. It turned out that the child she’d given birth to, Eliza Jane Scovill, had died of an AIDS-associated infection at the age of three. Only a few years later, Christine herself succumbed to pneumonia widely suspected to be a complication of AIDS.
David Gorski had written about Eliza’s tragic death on his blog, and later about Christine’s passing on the site he now edits (Science-Based Medicine). I credit him with changing my mind because I was just revolted at the preventable loss. It was a case for Occam’s Razor: Christine was said to have AIDS. Her daughter died from its effects. And then Christine died. It made no sense to deny the disease any longer.
I started reading Science Based Medicine more and more. I’d look up all the different things that I had believed, and they were all debunked.
The denial in my natural health circle started to become less palatable. A friend told me that children shouldn’t be treated for scarlet fever, claiming that the disease was a way for the child’s body to strengthen itself. That was a bit much for me. And when my husband and I eventually moved to Canada, I went with our kids to a homeschooling center. One mother intentionally brought in her kid who was sick with chickenpox so that he could infect others. Despite not having vaccinated my own children, I was horrified.
Standing Up to Anti-Vaccine Relatives
Around 2011, I decided I had seen enough and needed to get my kids caught up on their vaccines. But that process would require more than a moment of inspiration. I found my local clinic, and I called them saying I wanted my children vaccinated. I was told that a nurse would call me back. She never did.
At the same time, my husband and I separated. We were there on his work permit, so I was abruptly thrown into survival mode: first homeless, and then living with a friend. Eventually I found a little apartment where we all could stay. I was barely able to pull myself together, and having also lost insurance coverage, vaccination fell to the wayside.
A few years passed. I recall the worry that came with seeing measles surge across the United States in 2014. Pertussis was on the rise too, and my cousin’s wife was expecting. She announced to our whole family that if anyone wanted to see the baby, they had to be vaccinated. Some of my relatives started harassing her and wouldn’t let it go, yet I found myself defending her.
I was defending her requirement of a vaccine my kids didn’t even have. So I decided I was going to put my money where my mouth was, no matter the cost. I managed to get an appointment to get my children vaccinated. The nurses were shocked. At the appointment, I even heard them whisper “That’s the lady who never vaccinated her kids.” I was thinking, “Couldn’t you at least praise me a little?”
I remember my mom booked the whole backlog of vaccines, and I guess I just didn’t understand that it wasn’t normal that we hadn’t got them up to that point. (Rina’s Son Robert, now 29)
As I was sitting in the waiting room, I felt really nervous. My most difficult fear was that I might be putting my kids at risk. “Oh my god,” I thought, “Are they going to have side effects from this?” But I came to terms with the fact that nothing is risk free. Every day, you put your child in a car, and you feed them even though they could choke on the food. Every single choice comes with risk. As parents, all we can do is pick the safest option. That’s what I did that day.
Rina’s four children, now all vaccinated.
Afterwards, I had to figure out what to do with all my books on homeopathy, “what doctors don’t tell you,” and the like. I wanted to get rid of them, but I couldn’t take them to a secondhand store because I didn’t want to be responsible for anyone else going down the same path I had. So into the recycling bin they went.
The Harms of COVID Denial
Fast forward a few years. The pandemic made me revisit my own experience. I think in some ways we’ve gone backwards. When COVID came along, a lot of my friends who had seemed reasonable suddenly went all in on COVID denial and anti-vaccine myths. It shocked me how many people were so easily drawn in.
I was in a new relationship and my partner had friends in the Greek community in Montreal. Most of them fell prey to COVID denial. Several people that we knew died of COVID or were hospitalized. And yet the pandemic, rather than provoking a change of heart, caused some of them to cut ties with us. That’s how strong the denial is.
I’ve seen a lot of this unmoving denial since leaving the anti-vaccine movement. Antivaxxers I talk to never believe I’ve been in their situation. They simply can’t imagine someone being anti-vaccine and then changing their mind. Even people in my own family who are anti-vaccine talk to me like I know nothing.
The truth is that misinformation can convince anyone if the circumstances are right. It doesn’t matter if you’re liberal or conservative. When I started my anti-vaccine journey, I was among leftwing homeschoolers. When the HPV vaccine was authorized, vaccination fears became a sort of gateway drug for conservative antivaxxers.
Choosing to Save Lives
Recently, I’ve found a new way to deal with science denial. UNICEF offers packages of 50–150 doses of routine childhood vaccines for kids without access. Every time I see someone saying something anti-vaccine online, especially if they are bothering someone like David Gorski, I promise to donate a vaccine on their behalf.
I realized that when you argue with anti-vaxxers, you validate their beliefs. Donating to save lives is a more productive alternative. If nothing else, I’ve developed very thick skin turning insults into public good.
Rina Rosewell’s story, like all others on this blog, was a voluntary submission. If you want to help make a difference, submit your own post by emailing Noah at [email protected]. We depend on real people like you sharing experience to protect others from misinformation.