For most of us, getting vaccinated hasn’t been something we’ve thought twice about. From lining up at school for immunisation, to getting the flu vaccine as an adult, they’re simply a part of life. After all, prevention is better than cure – if a simple needle could stop you contracting a potentially deadly illness, who wouldn’t want that?
Well, as it turns out, a lot of people.
For years, a small but vocal community of vaccine opponents known as anti-vaxxers have made themselves heard on social media with inflammatory posts, as well as private groups. Recently, the movement has reached fever pitch: with the Australian government cracking down on families who choose not to vaccinate, anti-vaxxers have become louder than ever.
The defining moment which gave life to the anti-vaxx movement was in 1998, when a doctor named Andrew Wakefield published a small study which suggested that the MMR vaccine could cause autism. A decade later, however, the study was found to be based on fraudulent data – and funded by lawyers who were lobbying on behalf of anti-vaxx parents. Wakefield’s paper was redacted from publication and he lost his medical license, but the uncertainty created by the flawed study continues to linger. On anti-vaxx sites, there is frequent talk of ‘vaccine injury’, wherein a child suffers from a medical condition as a result of vaccination. The conditions can range from eczema to ADHD to autism to ear infections, but vaccines are blamed for all of them. While health departments have acknowledged that rare side effects from vaccines can sometimes occur, these are about 1 in a million – and truly, wouldn’t you rather your child have eczema than polio?
Although the anti-vaxx movement represents a public minority – only 3% of Australians choose not to vaccinate for ethical reasons – it continues to receive a disproportionate amount of media coverage. As the global push towards organic and chemical-free products continues, space has been made for increasingly fringe perspectives in the health realm. Vaxxed, a documentary attempting to blame vaccines for the rise of autism, received its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2016 and subsequently saw screenings worldwide.
Vaccination isn’t the only area where alternative health views have gained traction. Fluoridated water – widely considered one of public health’s most successful implementations – is also hotly debated within Australia. Opponents of fluoridation disagree with adding a chemical to drinking water and claim that it can cause a range of maladies – similar to vaccination critics. However, evidence uniformly shows that fluoride is both safe and one of the most effective ways to prevent tooth decay.
Despite the mountain of facts supporting fluoride, some parts of Australia continue to oppose it. In New South Wales, the towns of Bathurst and Oberson are separated by less than 50 kilometres, but Oberon has twice the rate of tooth decay. The difference? Water fluoridation.
In addition to refusing to implement fluoridation, several towns have actively removed the “poison” from local water. Mackay and Gladstone, two regional Queensland towns, voted to remove it from drinking water in 2016. Additionally, Byron Bay has held out on water fluoridation for decades, despite tooth decay in the region being triple the rate in fluoridated areas of New South Wales.
Byron Bay also has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Australia, with only 50% of children fully vaccinated – a number that is much, much lower than Australia’s goal of 95%. In addition, studies show that anti-vaxx parents tend to cluster in certain regions, with New South Wales’ central coast in particular being described as “an orgy of confirmation bias”.
This clustering can have a dangerous impact: while few parents are adamantly anti-vaxx, many feel undereducated and on the fence about vaccination. These hesitant parents are the ones more likely to change their perspective as they acquire new information – and the information they receive depends on who they’re surrounded by. If parents live in a town where half the population is vocally against vaccines, it is probable that hesitant parents will adopt a similar mindset – thus, the anti-vaccine mythology continues to be perpetuated.
But what can we do about anti-vaxxers, really? Although the community loves to point out that vaccines are a personal choice, the evidence shows us that actually, they’re not. Herd immunity – the idea that diseases cannot be spread if a high enough percentage of the population is vaccinated – is crucial for public health and safety. Parents who have sick or immunocompromised children who cannot be vaccinated are forced to rely on herd immunity to keep their children safe from diseases like polio, rubella, and whooping cough.
Although the national vaccination rate is around 93%, herd immunity can only be achieved with vaccination levels of 95% or higher. This means that currently, those who can’t vaccinate their children for legitimate reasons are at an increased risk of contracting a vaccine-preventable illness – particularly those living in an area like Byron Bay.
Despite only making up only 3% of Australia’s population, the presence of anti-vaxxers can be felt globally. Diseases such as measles, which was thought to be eradicated, reemerged in 2014 – and deadly illnesses like scarlet fever and tuberculosis have also had outbreaks.
In response to the increasing vocality of the anti-vaxx movement, the Australian government implemented new legislation to discourage parents from avoiding vaccinations. The new ‘No Jab, No Pay’ laws, which come into effect on July 1st, will result in reduced welfare payments and tax benefits for families who choose not to vaccinate. The impending laws have already seen vaccination rates increase around 1% nationally – a figure which will hopefully continue to rise with time.
While No Jab, No Pay applies nationally, a similar program has been implemented on a state level: No Jab, No Play. The ‘Play’ laws mean that children who choose not to vaccinate without a legitimate reason can be excluded from childcare services. Despite the backlash from anti-vaxxers being severe and loud, the new laws have been credited with soaring vaccination levels. With time, hopefully we can achieve a national rate high enough for herd immunity.
While the anti-vaxx movement is, for now, small, it’s not without consequences. For parents on the fence about vaccination, the disproportionate level of media coverage afforded to anti-vaxx standpoints may make their arguments appear more credible than they are. Thankfully, pro-vaccination advocates are pushing back on social media. The Facebook page “Things Anti-Vaxxers Say” brings attention to the ridiculousness of the movement, and mothers who have stepped back from anti-vaxx ideologies are becoming increasingly vocal about the risks of not vaccinating.
For now, the anti-vaxx movement remains an insular hivemind on the fringes of Australian society. Despite not being a large portion of the population, the group has a louder voice than you’d expect, which is amplified by undeserved media attention. Although it seems near impossible to change the minds of many anti-vaxxers, the evidence is clear: vaccines work, and any pushback is fundamentally based on a fear or misunderstanding of science rather than science itself. Hopefully, as time goes on, the anti-vaxx movement – like many vaccine-preventable diseases – is eliminated completely.