Incendiary Monday: I Don’t Understand Anti- Vaxxers

“Not until the beginning of the 20th century did Europe’s urban populations finally become self-sustaining: before then, constant immigration of healthy peasants from the countryside was necessary to make up for the constant deaths of city dwellers from crowd diseases.”
― Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

Diseases brought to the New World in the 15th century eliminated millions upon millions of people – depending on which historical view and statistics you believe of it, the disease wing of the Columbian Exchange killed at least 75% and up to 95% of the indigenous inhabitants. The main diseases that caused this? Smallpox, measles, diphtheria, and typhus. All of which we now have vaccines against.

The iteration of the Bubonic plague that ravaged Asia and Europe on multiple occasions but was still horrifying enough to be called the Black Death killed between 30-60% of the population. It killed an estimated 200 million people worldwide in 100 years. We can treat it in the first 24 hours, but to this day we have no cure for it. If it reappeared in our population again in the same numbers as the 14th century, the consequences could be beyond imagining.

"The Triumph of Death" by Peter Brueghel the Elder - a contemporary depiction of the ravages of plague and the social consequences that followed.
“The Triumph of Death” by Peter Brueghel the Elder – a contemporary depiction of the ravages of plague and the social consequences that followed.

My point? Some diseases we have fought against, and won. We have overcome the tens if not hundreds of millions who have died over millennia because of them, survived as a species, and struck back. Diseases that have wiped whole civilizations from the face of the earth have been vanquished through medical science. Some diseases we are admittedly still fighting.

Personally, I don’t understand why people choose not to vaccinate their children or themselves. People who forgo the vaccinations that made the health victories possible outright baffle and frighten me. [Edited for clarity] My personal experience with anti-vaxxers has been almost entirely with individuals who are part of anti-science, hyper-individualist wings of (mostly) American discourse that sincerely scare me. [Editing ends.] It is a dangerous mindset and it effects us all. The “science” that informed the latest and most vocal wave of them has been utterly debunked and officially recanted. The threats of the diseases they refuse to vaccinate against are still real – and they are still horrifically deadly. The nature of every major disease threat in human history is that it is communicable, we either live or die as whole communities.

There is no reason at all why I or anyone else should sicken and die with diseases that a decade ago were declared eliminated in my native country.

Agree? Disagree? Want to change my mind? Discuss.

Rant inspired by this post from the Daily Beast, shared by a friend of mine. 

A running count of preventable diseases and deaths since 2007.

19 thoughts on “Incendiary Monday: I Don’t Understand Anti- Vaxxers”

  1. This is certainly a contentious issue! Do you know what goes into vaccines? My sister and her husband have made the choice not to vaccinate their children because they don’t want to inject their children with mercury (used as a preservative ingredient), formaldehyde, and other toxic chemicals. BTW, my sister’s husband is a doctor — he is well aware of the science behind it and also of the contents of vaccines.

    One of the most common arguments against anti-vaxxers I hear is the argument about the spread of disease in history. But that argument fails to take into account the developments in hygiene over the centuries. We no longer live in cramped close conditions and bathe twice a month or perhaps less. In the medieval ages we didn’t have flushing toilets, showers and running water. People didn’t wash their hands as a matter of course, towns were filthy, no sewage systems….

    There is a time and a place for vaccines, yes, but I prefer to keep an open mind.

    1. Excellent comment, thanks for weighing in! I’d push back though that the idea of hygiene is universal, I’ve lived in and traveled extensively in over 20 countries and have seen the wide – VAST – differences in city planning, sewage treatment, and living conditions. Huge percentages of the world’s population DO live in the conditions you describe, so I don’t think it’s accurate to say that the whole world is on a level playing field. And since we’re a globalized planet, communicable diseases are no longer confined to the less well maintained areas they tend to start in. I’ve been exposed to TB and other diseases in the course of my father’s international career that I would no doubt have contracted had I not been vaccinated against them. And frankly, bathing or hand washing (grateful as I am to live in places where both are available and understood) simply aren’t a barrier to some of the worst of these diseases.

      1. Sorry, I should have made it clear that I was referring only to developed countries. Yes, there are certainly countries which are very different from the U.S. and U.K. in terms of city planning and living conditions. It is notable, however, that those countries suffer more in terms of the spread of disease, infant mortality, etc.

        I’m not 100% against vaccines and I can see both sides of the argument but I defend the right to choose: to decide whether you want to vaccinate your children or not. My sister and my brother-in-law are neither “anti-science” (as I mentioned, he is a GP) nor “hyper-individualist”.

        Finally, I don’t understand why pharmaceutical companies don’t work on taking the toxic additives out of vaccines.

      2. Again, good points. The “incediary” aspect to the whole debate is the fundamental question of do we have the right to choose to endanger ourselves, communities, etc.? Does freedom of choice extend to the influence our choices have over others’ well being? If so, to what extent? If not, why not? It’s hugely complex. For me the answer is no, and though I admit to understanding and sympathizing with the complexity, I’ve heard no argument thus far that convinces me that there’s a hypothetical;y valid answer of yes. I’m willing to have my mind changed, but nothing presented to me does it.

  2. In my experience, anti-vaxxers fall into two groups: ultra-conservative ultra-fundamental types (the sort that don’t believe women should work outside the house or pursue higher education, etc); and younger ~nonconforming~ hipster yuppies. The hipster yuppies scare me more, partly because they’re a less isolated group (living in Brooklyn instead of rural Arkansas, kids in Montessori instead of homeschool, etc) and partly because they represent what I see as a potential trend (however fringe) for our fellow Millennials. No, not every vaccine is 100% risk-free, but NOT vaccinating poses far larger risks from both a personal and a social perspective. Get a classroom full of non-vaxxed hipster offspring and have one case of [insert preventable disease here], and suddenly you’ve got a major issue, regardless of the theoretical “hygiene” level our society has achieved (have you seen the way pre-school and elementary children interact and the way colds and flus spread in schools?). Then, when these kids have to be treated in hospitals, they put immunodeficient populations at risk. Ultimately, not vaccinating is a selfish act, in my (and many others’) opinion.

    The standard childhood vaccines have been very, very well-tested. And we forget what terrible consequences those diseases can have because it’s been a couple of generations since they were an issue in the US/UK, but talk to a 70-year-old polio survivor about how proud you are of not vaccinating your child (I’ve seen this happen), and you’ll get a reality check.

    Blah blah blah; thanks for the soapbox. I vote to make Incendiary Monday a regular installment. Write about the settlement issue in Palestine next week, or the NATO/US pullout in Afghanistan right when the presidential elections are happening. Pageviews!

  3. My issue with vaccines is the schedule is so different than the one I grew up with. Yes, the long-established ones (MMR, Polio, etc) are solid, but things like HepB for a newborn is ludicrous. I can see Hep B for a pre-teen or young teen who may become sexually active soon, but not for a newborn. A 7 pound infant receiving a vaccine is different from a 100 pound 13 year old. I also understand concerns about mercury in the flu shots.
    I also wonder about misdiagnosing illnesses. For example, there have been lots of news articles about pertussis being spread, but I also know that parapetussis gives the same symptoms (though slightly milder) and there is no vaccine for it. How often are doctors culturing people with whooping cough and verifying that it is actually petussis and not parapetussis? I don’t know.
    Also, it confuses me why chicken pox is suddenly a worry when it wasn’t when I was a kid. We all got it. I think it’s mostly given so parents don’t have to take time off work to deal with a kid with chicken pox.
    Also, rubella is given because it’s dangerous for early pregnant women to come across it (dangerous for the fetus), but yet there are other childhood diseases that are just as dangerous for early pregnant women (Fifth’s Disease) and there are no vaccines for them. What is with that logic? I don’t get that. But it doesn’t matter since you can’t get the rubella vaccine on its own anymore- it must be coupled with mumps and measles.
    I’m not against vaxxing, but I’m against the current schedule of vaccines and prefer to spread them out. The Hep B vax can wait until kids are older. I’m unsure about needing a chicken pox vaccine and I’m unsure about requiring a flu vax (for children) yearly when it has thermasol and only covers a few strains of flu. Also, when a lot of the population is adult-aged and they aren’t getting their boosters, that’s a problem. Come on, adults! I understand parents being wary about giving small kids vaccines (seriously: a 20 pound body versus a 120 pound body is huge in volume!), but when you’re a full grown adult (or if you’re traveling), it’s probably time you get caught up on everything that you aren’t medically contraindicated for. But part of that is that yearly check ups weren’t always available to all adults. I hope the Affordable Care Act fixes some of those issues, though, it probably won’t fix all of them. People still have to take time off work to go to the doctor and not all pharmacies (where some vaxes are given) are 24-hour pharmacies. Where I live in Oakland, 24-hour anythings are rare: businesses all close over night, I think because of crime.

  4. In response to Grace, I would simply post this:
    Simply because one doesn’t understand the science behind it, regardless of a family member’s profession, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. And if hygiene-based practices alone were enough to prevent the disease from spreading and existing, ESPECIALLY in the first world, then we wouldn’t have measles and whooping cough breakouts in New York, Boston, Los Angeles and elsewhere in the country (the country that is the PINNACLE of the first world). With zero evidence of any negative side effects of vaccination and with the growing numbers of diseases that were once eliminated in this country, I just don’t understand how someone can not vaccinate. It’s like watching a house crumble, seeing a handful of termites in the wreckage and thinking, “well there were only a few so that couldn’t have been the cause, I still don’t want to get termite protection because it the chemicals in the pesticides also (though in a completely different chemical structure) exist in paint stripper and I don’t want the paint to fall off my house.” Finally, I’m not even going to touch the question of morality of a medical professional not protecting his family and children from the enormous amounts of disease that walks through his office day in and day out, but that’s mostly due to me being one of those hyper-individualists that scares Cadence….

    1. I totally understand your point, but please be careful of hyperbolic statements. This “Pinnacle” of the first world has a maternal mortality rate greater than Iran, Bahrain, and Turkey (, and it is particularly high for women of color. If you think the healthcare that the average American gets is worthy of the descriptor “Pinnacle,” you’d be wrong.
      And saying that there is “zero side effects of any negative side effects of vaccination” ignores that the CDC itself keeps the Vaccine Adverse Effect Reporting System ( for people to report the negative side effects that do sometimes occur.
      The fear-mongering and hyperbolic rhetoric of both sides makes it hard for parents to figure out who is being truthful and who is using scare tactics. It’s not going to motivate parents to make good health decisions.

      1. Good points and reminders. I agree the wholeheartedly West is not a pinnacle of healthcare, and it’s also astonishingly lacking in uniformity in its care access – particularly among disenfranchised populations. The US is not immune from bad sanitation, unhealthy living areas, or lack of care, we have a great deal of it in some areas and communities.

      2. I like this discussion. I would only point out that I never made claim to be the pinnacle of healthcare or sanitation for that matter, simply the pinnacle of the first world as a whole and the example to the rest of the world. Also, a lacking in sanitation and maternity death rates either bolster the argument for vaccination or have nothing to do with the argument at hand. I support the CDC for creating a reporting website, however, I don’t seem to be able to find any data on the actual side effects that may occur from the standard vaccine schedule, only a place to report it if one feels it has occurred. You are correct however regarding polarizing hyperbolic rhetoric, so thank you for keeping me in check!

    2. Scares but she still loves!

      You sum up a lot of my own thoughts. We still need the vaccines because these diseases haven’t been eradicated yet. And clearly, given how fast they spread when reintroduced to a population no longer immune to them, they do damage. To not protect against that damage doesn’t really make sense to me. Ultimately it boils down to this – do you have the right to choose to endanger your children/self/community? It’s not an easy answer at all – but for me and my family, we say no.

    3. Please note that I didn’t say I don’t understand the science behind it (which I am well aware of) — I said there is no reason for pharmaceutical companies to keep putting toxic and potentially harmful additives into vaccines. There is no need for vaccines to contain aluminium, mercury, MSG, formaldehyde, etc. The active ingredient in the vaccine is the virus. Mercury doesn’t add anything to the effectiveness of the vaccine. It’s simply used as a preservative.

      Also, it is simply not true that there is “zero evidence of any negative side effects of vaccination”. If you read the medical leaflet for any vaccine, there is a list of possible side effects. Furthermore, there are many scientific research studies which investigate links between vaccines and side effects, such as:

      “Hepatitis B vaccination of male neonates and autism diagnosis” at PubMed (

      A paper from the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry suggesting a correlation between aluminium (a common additive in vaccines) and autism (

      A study reporting possible associations between thimerosal exposure in infants and neurodevelopmental disorders, also at PubMed (

  5. Anti-vaxers irk me in the way that chronic text-and-drivers do. So many think they’re somehow exempt from bad consequences until one day, tragically, they’re not. It’s at best socially irresponsible and at worst extremely dangerous.

    1. A useful analogy. It’s one thing to endanger yourself, but some kinds of actions in their very nature (say texting-and-driving) also up the danger probability for those around you as well. This is where I get into tricky territory with a number of behaviors, practices, etc. If in theory only you were at risk from your choices, go ahead! Since in practice that’s almost never the case, how far do the ripples have to spread before it’s no longer about an individual’s right to choice and about a society’s right to safety? It’s the same issue that informs most of our cultural and political debates these days and, unhelpfully, there isn’t a standardized answer even though so many of the questions boil down to that one.

  6. I agree with you. I think part of the problem with anti-vaxxers is the economic idea of the principle of the commons. The principle is that you have a common area that everyone in the community gets the benefit of, but it doesn’t really matter if one doesn’t help maintain it, because someone else will. It’s why the free market has trouble dealing with issues of pollution, for example. Everyone benefits from having clean air and water, but you not helping clean up the environment doesn’t make much of a difference.

    Anti-vaxxers take for granted that most people around them are vaccinated so they don’t have to worry about the outbreaks of these deadly diseases. There is a small risk associated with vaccinations, and there are some immune-compromised individuals who can’t take them. If one anti-vaxxer doesn’t vaccinate their children it’s not such a big deal. It many don’t, we begin to have a big public health problem.

    I also think that a big part of the anti-vaccine movement is the fact that we really haven’t had a major deadly outbreak of a disease in most of our lifetimes (besides the AIDS epidemic, which has been really minor in the U.S. compared to historical outbreaks), which has lulled a lot of people into thinking that those scares are a thing of the past, so the risk of the vaccination seem bigger than the risk of the diseases. They’re not. Sanitation has helped, vaccinations have helped, and modern health care has helped, but the risk is still very real. I’ve read several books about disease and vaccination in the last few years, and one of the scariest was about the 1918 flu pandemic. It was terrifying and incredibly deadly, and always a threat that that strain will make a comeback. If I had any doubts, that book convinced me to always get my flu shot and make sure my kids do, too.

    I have a few friends in the anti-vaccine camp who are very intelligent, thoughtful people; however, everything that they post from the anti side is full of quack science, mistrust of modern medicine, and spurious correlations. The last one I read was one of my favorites. It claimed that not only do vaccines cause autism (which has been disproven again and again), but also nearly every other auto-immune and digestive issue that is common today. They many have even thrown in diabetes. It was incredible. I have yet to read an anti-vaccine article that is rational and reasonable. I’d be much more willing to give their view some credence if I found even one.

    1. Very insightful! I think you’ve pointed out what bugs me so badly: the mentality that you want to benefit from a social good (like better health due to vaccines) without actually having to do anything to put into the system (like getting vaccinated). I also think you’re spot on in that we haven’t had (in the West at least) a major outbreak of anything in a century and it’s lulled us into a false sense of security. Some seem to think, “We don’t need to be vaccinated because the diseases aren’t a threat any more.” They’re mistaking cause and causality in a big way.

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