The anti-vaxxers have done it again. Perth news media had warned civilians against visiting IKEA, Perth Zoo, and South West WA after tracing the path of a measles-infected individual who was believed to have contracted the disease in the latter location. And now, our very own Reid Library has been added to the list.

So thanks, anti-vaxxers. Looks like I’ll be getting a serve of measles with my Quobba Gnarning coffee.

Immunisation against non-fatal diseases is seen as unnecessary within anti-vax communities. Measles is one such disease: as nasty as it is, people have lived through it. But what people sometimes don’t live through are the nastier infections that can follow. Measles, like other preventable diseases, immunocompromises the host and makes them susceptible to opportunistic pathogens. So what happens when measles makes way for a rarer, more serious disease like bacterial pneumonia or encephalitis? At what stage do you give in to Big Pharma?

One can only imagine how much effort it must have taken for scientists and doctors past to produce the measles vaccine; a vaccine that has saved 17.1 million lives since 2000, according to the World Health Organization. One can only imagine creators Hilleman & Enders and colleagues rolling in their graves with every utterance of “we’ve done our own research.”

I decided to take a leaf out of the anti-vax book and do my own research. I sent out mass requests to join Facebook anti-vax groups with the vivacity of an aspiring Instagram influencer going through your followers list.

What I found was an other-world of mum-rants and minion memes.

Every page I trawled through was littered with pictures of screaming babies and gigantic needles poised maliciously against their cherub skin – images designed to strike guilt into any (loving) mother’s heart.

One mother recounted an angry dialogue with a doctor who asked why she was refusing the flu shot for her newborn. She replied “vaccinations are a choice just like what I want off the menu at McDonald’s.”

Some used the pages to ask questions such as “is the measles inside the vaccine contagious, as in can it spread from vaccinated to unvaccinated kids?” while others asked how to detox their children from their vaccinations following contractions of vaccine-induced autism.

Misinformed mums aside, some articles stopped me in my pro-vax tracks and made me think a little more.

I followed a link to an article exposing 36 infant deaths following vaccination with the 6-in-1 vaccine Infanrix hexa, produced by GlaxoSmithKline. The article referenced a ‘leaked’ document containing information about tests run between 23 Oct 2009 and 22 Oct 2011, after it hit the international market. Stats were followed by a list of ingredients in ‘The Deadly Chemical Cocktail’ – scary words like ‘toxoid’, and ‘recombinant’ amongst names of chemical compounds. The article was rather convincing, and I almost felt ready to refuse this vaccine on behalf of an unborn future child.

A big problem with anti-vax articles is the way in which they’re written. Usually, they’re emotionally charged or unapologetically persuasive, with conspiracy-theory-esque undertones and clickbait titles. Scientific jargon is bookended by phrases that portray components as dangerous and unnatural to an audience unfamiliar with their definitions. A lot of them end with a call-to-arms against ‘big pHARMa’ and their propaganda. Many take advantage of fine-print-phobia and beef up their reference lists with articles as vague as they are long.

Investigating the sources for this article added more to the story.

One of the sources for the Infrarix hexa article was penned by controversial anti-vax doctor Harold Buttram, who only has 2 publications on PubMed. For comparison, a search for publications by UWA’s own Barry J Marshall yields 67 results.

Two other references were dodgy-looking sites in French. One turned up as Page Not Found. And then there was the 1271-page ‘confidential’ document in question.

After severely overworking the ctrl+f function, I did not find any tally of 36 infant deaths. What I did find though, was a table that recorded 22 fatalities with analyses details. Almost all of them were caused by the toxic reaction of Infanrix hexa with other vaccines, not the vaccine alone as implied.

The author, Christina England, is a well-renowned journalist who has spent much of her life researching and writing for anti-vax campaigns. Her first adopted son had an adverse reaction to the MMR vaccine. She struggled to care for him, being accused and acquitted of Munchausen’s by proxy before he was diagnosed with autism and ADHD on top of other complex disabilities. She comes from a place of first-hand experience like many anti-vaxxers, who genuinely want the best for their own and others.

Most would argue that goodwill is not enough to excuse bias and misinformation when the health of a population is at stake. The problem is that this goes both ways of the argument. The difference lies in where each side sees the solution.

The issue isn’t that people aren’t thinking for themselves – it’s that they’re looking to the wrong sources. Unqualified people with the loudest voices lead listeners to believe they’re smarter to go against the grain. Even YouTube has recognized this, having vowed to exclude conspiracy theory videos from autoplay recommendations. Put nicely by supervising attorney of Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic, Andrew Mendrala: “it’s an echo chamber. It’s a feedback loop… It creates an insular community that is continually fed misinformation that reinforces their prejudices.”

Vaccines are put through rigorous tests before being released to the public. Although never intended, sometimes people are harmed in clinical trials, and in the worst of cases, they don’t survive. The sad truth is that lives have been sacrificed for the betterment of public health, but remembering this inspires in me a solemn gratitude for the medical services that are available to us today.

Whichever side of the debate you’re on, I definitely encourage you to do your own research – but not to stop where the article ends.

 

Words by Caitlin Owyong