The Anti-Vaccine Movement: What Is It, and Why Is It Happening?

June 3, 2019 • Shannon Flynn


The term “anti-vaxxing” is somewhat of a buzzword, and many people understandably wonder what spurred the anti-vaccine movement. From when they were kids, most people recognized vaccines protect them from disease and that getting them on schedule is part of staying healthy.

So, what caused people to begin believing vaccines cause harm?

The Basics of the Anti-Vaccine Movement

The people against vaccines generally believe they cause sickness and that Big Pharma companies push them to boost their profits.

Similarly, some individuals assert that the first vaccine — Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccination, developed in 1796 — didn’t work and that all the others are useless, too.

Also, some countries make certain vaccines mandatory, and it’s common to require vaccines before kids attend school or camps.

As such, some anti-vaccinators get upset because they believe those rules interfere with their freedoms or dictate how they should raise their kids.

Not a New Movement

Contrary to popular belief, the resistance against vaccines did not start in the 20th century, but much earlier.

In the early 1800s, several states required smallpox vaccinations. But, by the 1880s, people started pushing back against vaccines. This phenomenon mostly happened in populations of middle-class people who didn’t trust the government.

Then, in the 1900s, a physician named Immanuel Pfeiffer gave fuel to the vaccine resistance when he claimed smallpox was not a risk for healthy people. He visited a hospital of quarantined smallpox patients to prove his point. Ironically, Pfeiffer caught smallpox during his experiment and nearly died, but continued to speak out against the vaccine.

Andrew Wakefield Kickstarts the Doubt

Many people distrust things they don’t understand. So, in a way, it’s not surprising the first incidents of being against vaccines occurred when the science was still new.

Immunizations expose the body’s immune system to weakened versions of the bacteria or viruses responsible for a particular disease. Then, the immune system develops antibodies that protect the body against any full exposure that would cause symptoms.

People could let fear take over and become afraid that a vaccine would give them a disease instead of protecting them from it. As individuals and the scientific community learned more about vaccines, knowledge became a powerful defense against fearmongering.

But, in 1995, a physician named Andrew Wakefield published a scientific paper linking vaccines to autism. That publication arguably set off the anti-vaccine movement again.

As it turns out, the paper contained purposefully misleading and untrue information and caused Wakefield to lose his medical license. But, it took 12 years before the paper’s original publisher retracted the details and confirmed them as false.

By then, people had plenty of time to latch onto the information in the paper and assume its truthfulness, despite various, more recent, studies showing neither vaccines or their ingredients cause autism.

No Evidence for the Benefits of Going Without Vaccines

Many people within the anti-vaccine movement believe vaccines can cause harm and even death. Those side effects are possible, but extremely rare, especially considering the number of people who get vaccinated and the relatively infrequent occurrences of side effects.

For example, the American Academy of Family Physicians provided data about the risks of vaccines. Even the most prevalent adverse occurrences only happen in about 8.5 cases per 10,000 doses.

As the World Health Organization points out, getting immunized by vaccinations is the safest way to protect against disease, and getting vaccinated is always the best option, even in instances where people have a low likelihood of getting infected. That’s because getting vaccinated supports herd immunity, whereby the spread of disease gets reduced due to the majority of people in a population segment being immunized against it.

Celebrity Support and Social Media Driving the Anti-Vaccination Movement

Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey and Kat Von D are among the celebrities that openly lend their voices to the anti-vaxxing crowd. And, something this modern movement has that the earlier one didn’t is social media.

Famous people and everyday individuals alike can use social media as their megaphone and reach an audience of tens of thousands of people or more with just a few clicks.

Also, The Atlantic found that from January 2016 to February 2019, only seven profiles published 20% of the top 10,000 anti-vaxxing Facebook posts. The nature of social media is such that people feel compelled to share things with their peers and may not take the time to fact-check the content beforehand.

Then, misinformation gets perpetuated, and people assume it’s valid. Moreover, social media provides the ideal platform for anti-vaccinators to find other like-minded individuals and even organize events to support their beliefs and further encourage not getting vaccinated, such as chicken pox “parties.”

Another problem with social media is that it generally exposes people to the content they find agreeable — that’s the whole concept behind liking or following a page, after all.

If people treat social media as a source of news — as the Pew Research Center finds about two-thirds of American adults do — some of them may also determine it’s the most accessible source of news, not realizing it’s also a filtered one that may not give them the complete picture.

Already Apparent Effects

In 2000, health officials declared measles eradicated. However, recent outbreaks have occurred throughout the United States and Europe. Many of them happened in communities where large percentages of parents opted not to vaccinate their kids. An unvaccinated person can infect up to 18 other people. Many beliefs don’t have widespread potential to harm others, but that’s not true for the anti-vaccination movement.

Prioritizing Education Over Ridicule

It’s essential to remember not to demean people who genuinely believe they’re doing what’s best by refusing vaccinations for their children.

Instead, the ideal courses of action are to educate them about what the science shows and to remind them social media alone is not a reliable news source.