In August, the National Public Health Information Coalition (NPHIC) in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sponsor National Immunization Awareness Month (NIAM) to build awareness about the importance of vaccination.
We’ve come a long way since 1796 – that’s when Edward Jenner developed the first successful vaccine: the Smallpox vaccine. In the 20th century, it’s estimated that Smallpox has killed 300 to 500 million people. But thanks to vaccination, there has not been a reported case of Smallpox in the world since 1977 and the disease was officially declared eradicated in 1979.
However, since the advent of vaccines and their application to prevent, cure and eradicate diseases, there has been a simultaneous reactionary movement that has sought to portray vaccines as a form of mind control or as a cocktail of harmful chemicals that cause more harm than they’re worth: as they’re commonly referred to, “anti-vaxxers”.
This topic might seem more public health than mental health and you’d be right: vaccinations are not just about individual wellbeing but collective immunity. But as far as the anti-vaxx movement goes, they’ve incorrectly linked vaccines to disorders like autism and mental illnesses. And in terms of their mental health, anti-vaxxers are likely guilty of having a disproportionate tendency toward certain behavioural issues, like a higher than normal tendency toward conspiratorial thinking and reactance.
Interestingly, in that same study, which included more than 5,323 people across 24 countries, also found that the level of education had little effect on individual’s attitudes on vaccination.
For these reasons, anti-vaccination hysteria, while still an education issue shouldn’t be treated simply as a symptom of socio-economic status or access to information but as an offshoot of anti-social behaviour. As Robert Stoker, Professor at George Washington University adds, those that chose to immunize themselves or their children were noted to identify altruism – simply the concern for the well-being of others – as a motivating factor.
One of the leading contributors to the proliferation of anti-vaccination views has been social media. Being provided a platform to freely publish disinformation, seek out others within your community and to anonymously attack others has given the anti-vaxx movement a greater foothold than ever before.
That’s bad. As the effects of “Fake News” begin to take hold, younger generations without the experience to discern the difference between truth and fiction are more susceptible than others to anti-vaxx disinformation.
What can we do about it? Given that those inclined toward anti-vaxx beliefs tend toward conspiratorial paranoia and anti-government views, providing access to the facts through alternative channels has been shown to work. Leveraging the same social media networks that are used to spread misinformation and providing facts through shareable, easy-to-read content is also another possible angle of approach.
If you know an anti-vaxxer, perhaps all it could take to help is to reach out: a study found that ostracization can enhance one’s beliefs in conspiracies. Socializing the truth can become a gateway to education and defeating misinformation.
While vaccinations help provide a collective immunity so that people can live longer and thrive, anti-vaccination misinformation is seeking to undermine that hard earned freedom. It’s important that we treat the anti-vaxx community in a way that acknowledges their public health threat instead of as an idle curiosity and take action to spread facts, not disease.