While negligible on a national scale, the amount of people openly skeptical about the safety and efficacy of vaccines has been rising
Anti-vaccination content has been increasingly under a spotlight in the last few years, and it’s only become more polarizing with this increased attention. While the anti-vaccination movement has been growing, it’s been met with equal outrage and intrigue from the general public.
More people have taken anti-vaccination views as the discussion of vaccinations enters the public forum. At the same time, pro-vaccination groups have been more vocal than ever.
Movements against vaccinations aren’t new in the social media age. Vaccines and their dissenters have been around since 11th-century China. Though pre-18th-century opposition to vaccinations was largely based on religious reasons or uncertainty of the exact mechanics of molecular biology, how, why and if vaccines actually worked is still a topic for debate for many today.
The historic narrative for vaccinations often starts when Edward Jenner discovered the smallpox vaccine in 1796 and from then on, vaccines were simply a given scientific reality. But the story is more complicated and more contentious. For one, vaccines were known in China and generally outside of the West earlier than is often discussed.
There were also the many times vaccines failed people, especially before we had a stronger understanding of molecular science: in the 1955 Cutter Incident, live polio viruses were administered via vaccines through a safety testing error. This led to at least 250 cases of polio in Berkeley, California, through Cutter Laboratories. There’s also the 1948 Kyoto Disaster, in which 68 children in Kyoto, Japan, lost their lives following diphtheria immunization after a problem in the production of the vaccine batch. It also seems relevant to mention that a significant amount of early 20th-century vaccination testing used the bodies of nonconsenting minorities or institutionalized people as testing grounds.
Outside of the long-standing medical history of vaccines is the sociological history of how they’ve been perceived. In the 1970s and ‘80s, vaccinations faced serious legal and social pushback. A 1998 English study in which scientist Andrew Wakefield asserted that there was a relationship between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism. This study was found to be fraudulent in 2004, and Wakefield’s ability to practice medicine in Britain was revoked in 2010, though the paper did negatively affect the public’s perception of the MMR vaccine and, arguably, vaccines as a whole.
In 1999, the year after the study was published, the number of British children vaccinated with the MMR vaccine went from 90 percent to 80 percent. The false linkage between vaccination and autism is still a fairly popular belief held within the anti-vax community.
The rise of anti-vaccination rhetoric may be surprising, but it is not without historic precedent. Science has always been coupled with doubt, and for good reason. Vaccines have killed people before, and it does make a certain amount of sense that a parent would worry about what they may be injecting their child with. However, the rise of anti-vaccine content on social media has allowed misled anti-vaxxers platforms and therefore increased the amount of people interacting with and being duped by anti-vaccination content.
In 2018, the Americas saw its first cases of measles, the outbreak of which began in Venezuela, since it was believed to be eradicated in 2016. Pro-vaccination groups have suggested a positive correlation between anti-vaccination content on social media and this measles outbreak. In response to the outbreak, the WHO has emphasized pro-vaccine education.
In an effort to quell these growing misinformation-based groups, Pinterest is no longer showing content related to vaccines, and YouTube is reducing anti-vaccination content and recommendations.