Rumors, as the saying goes, spread like wildfire. The anti-vaccination movement, along with the unsupported concerns that childhood vaccinations cause autism, is a prime example of how fear and non-scientific inquiry can alter the behavior of a significant portion of the population.
According to a recent study published in Pediatrics, about 40 percent of American adults are now choosing to delay vaccinations for their children, and in some cases, skipping vaccinations altogether. This has led to a resurgence of preventable diseases that had all but disappeared in the United States, like the measles, the mumps and whooping cough.
Panic-induced sheep liking mass hysteria over misinformed celebrity-backed causes is not a good way to go about living a human life. (Apologies if you’re a pro-vaccine celebrity, and I’ve just hurt your feelings.)
The anti-vaccine movement has had a big impact on how the public perceives vaccinations in general, and the thimerosal compound in particular, which was phased out of vaccine manufacturing in 1999 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — even though the scientific data has never shown a link between thimerosal and autism. Ever.
Regardless of the medical reality on the ground, people do listen to their peers, and unfortunately their non-medically educated celebrity “peers,” who hold a dangerous amount of sway over public opinion. Several years ago, a study by the University of Michigan shed some light on how people react to vaccination information. While most parents trust their doctor’s advice, almost 25 percent trusted (to some degree) celebrity opinions on the matter.
Rumors not rooted in fact can be exceedingly harmful. Anti-Semitism is an interesting, if unusual, example of this. Once, on a train in China, I had a conversation with a Chinese anti-Semite. He didn’t understand the differences between the Abrahamic religions, nor did he know the history of Israel. He had never met a Jew, yet he insisted on the veracity of anti-Semitic rhetoric (Jews are, he said, fundamentally “wicked” and such). In essence, he’d heard a rumor repeated so often that it had reached China’s interior and became some kind of vague knowledge woven into the fabric of his identity. He believed in and heartily defended his anti-Semitic viewpoint, even though he had no idea what, or who, he was talking about.
It’s like when you’re at a party and you present something as fact, and when asked to back it up, you say, “I read it in an article somewhere,” when actually that article was a celebrity tweet or the unsubstantiated opinion of another person whose name you’ve already forgotten.
Some people will swear childhood vaccines cause great harm and then assume this is a foregone conclusion, when in fact the “indisputable” information they’re receiving comes from a friend who heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend (ad infinitum) who heard about it on a late-night talk show or Twitter. That non-scientifically supported opinion you’re spreading around is not even remotely close to being your own.
Hey, don’t knock science around too much, even if it stumbles now and then (that’s how scientific method works). Science is the reason, along with clean water, that you’ll live twice as long as your great-great-great-grandfather. It’s also the reasons you didn’t get sick or die from the measles or rubella when you were a child — assuming you, along with your mother, were vaccinated against those diseases.
Thankfully some celebrities, as well as mere mortals, have pushed back against the anti-vaccination campaigners. Jenny McCarthy, the go-to celebrity spokeswoman/punching bag for the anti-vaccination movement has to now suffer the Jenny McCarthy Body Count website, which details the number of people getting sick or dying from preventable diseases.
While the folks who run the site concede that the anti-vaccination movement isn’t responsible for “every vaccine preventable death,” they do point out that the anti-vaccination movement is most likely “indirectly responsible for at least some of these illnesses and deaths.” It’s extremely eye opening to see charted examples of how whispers and rumors — no matter how they’re spread — have the power to literally destroy human lives.
Carl Pettit is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.