Antivax 101: Tactics and Tropes of the Antivaccine Movement

Vaccines are NOT toxic
This is the first of a series of posts adapting a presentation made at The Ontario Public Health Convention in April, 2011. The presentation, “Fighting in the Trenches: Countering Anti-Vaccine Sentiment with Social Media” was a panel discussion from Scott Gavura and Kimberly Hébert:

One of the best parts of the infectious disease outbreak movie Contagion was the decision to include an antivaccinationist, conspiracy-minded, alternative health advocate, played by Jude Law. Law gave a character-perfect performance of someone intent on deliberately and selfishly thwarting public health advice, putting lives at risk as a consequence. Sadly, the writers didn’t have to look far for real world examples: It’s hard to forget “Health Ranger” Mike Adams’s paranoid music video produced in 2009, at the height of H1N1, when he decided to put every antivaccine argument into one performance.

But the Health Ranger is just the current manifestation of antivaccine sentiment which has been around since vaccines were invented:

When a theory has been confirmed so completely by facts as has the proposition that vaccination effectually performed will prevent an individual from contracting small-pox, or at least so fundamentally modify the disease that it is no longer a serious malady, there is in many minds a natural distaste to fight the battle again or to be constantly defending the position against the attacks of ill-informed or prejudiced persons.

– British Medical Journal, July 24, 1897

But this battle is still being fought, after over 100 years of immunization, and over two dozen diseases becoming vaccine-preventable. The anti-vaccine movement is a real movement, and it’s doing what it can to create fear, uncertainty and doubt regarding public health messaging. There is evidence that antivaccinationists can influence vaccination decisions. The arrival of social media over the past decade means there’s the need for public health advocates to adapt their messaging to this new medium. What seems clear is that “traditional” public health tactics, with warnings and arguments from authority, are dwindling in their effectiveness. All aspects of medicine are moving towards models of shared decision-making. This is an overdue change, and it’s been facilitated by the widespread availability of health information. Information is no longer hidden from public access. Want the approved product monograph for a vaccine? It’s available online. Even the primary literature is becoming more freely accessible.

Unfortunately, the power of the Web 2.0 and social media has made it easier for antivaccinationists to foster antivaccine fears and sentiment. In order to combat this misinformation, the movement’s tactics and tropes must be understood, so they can be called out.

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H1N1 Antivax Paranoia

All my illusions that Canada is free of anti-vaccination zealots (antivaxxers) disappeared this week as the H1N1 vaccine was approved in Canada. After starting an H1N1 information page on Facebook (please join) it’s been an ongoing challenge to respond to the antivaccine comments – comments that are incorrect and often deliberately misleading. This is quite time consuming, so my schedule for posts on this blog has been delayed.

I’ve also been blogging at the new SkepticNorth blog on topics that aren’t purely pharmacy related. This week I blogged about the role of naturopaths in the Canadian healthcare system, as well as quackery on campus (U of T, I’m looking at you). So please check out those posts. And please follow the SkepticNorth blog – I’m one of a number of bloggers covering Canadian topics. We appreciate your support.

Back to H1N1, here’s a few credible resources that I highly recommend you consult. If you are a science-based health professional, I’m asking you to roll up your sleeves…get the vaccine, and then help correct the misinformation that’s spreading on the web.

Blogs to follow:

Science-Based Medicine – superb posts, virtually every anti-vax argument is debunked here

Effect Measure – blog written by public health scientists, covers the reality of the pandemic in detail

Other important resources:

Public Health Agency of Canada – for Canadian info, including weekly H1N1 updates

Centers for Disease Control – the American source of H1N1 information

Canadian Immunization Guidelines – outlines in detail the rationale for vaccines, the safety monitoring process, and more.

Consumer Reports Swine Flu Information page – details the variety of swine flu scams out there

Public Health Agency of Canada’s Guidance on the H1N1 Vaccine – for health professionals, details the proper use of the Canadian vaccine.

War on Science – A fantastic series that appeared in Wired magazine that details how anti-science, anti-vaccine sentiment is hurting us all.

I’m asking all of you to speak up for science and reason. Address antivaccination comments and emails with redirection to reputable sources of information. Don’t forward paranoid emails about swine flu or the vaccine. Don’t recommend ineffective or unproven therapies. Call out fearmongering when you see it. This is going to be a long flu season – let’s fight it with science, not paranoia.