Anti-Vaccine Movements: Thriving on Fallacies and As Old as Vaccines Themselves

Nada Mohamad
Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Oxford University
April 19, 2021
Anti-vaxxers are not a new thing. In the late 19th century tens of thousands of people took to the streets in England to protest against smallpox vaccinations. What many anti-vaxxers today do not realize is that their resistance threatens the life of others and could bring diseases that have long been forgotten … thanks to vaccination.
This story has been produced in collaboration with Pulitzer Center

Basima is a Lebanese lawyer, married with three children, the oldest of whom is 18, and the youngest, Ahmad, is ten years old. Basima did not take a serious stand against vaccination until after the birth of her youngest son.

“A doctor and vaccinating her children! How is that possible!” is the phrase Basima heard when she was visiting one Lebanese hospital to give Ahmad one of his first vaccines.

What she heard raised many doubts in her mind, so she left the hospital without completing the required vaccinations for her baby, and have never returned.

A social media image shared by a woman showing her daughter holding an anti-vaccination banner

The reason for her anti-vaccination stand Basima told Daraj, is that she does not want a foreign substance – the vaccine – to enter her or her children’s body.

“I was not convinced, I don’t know why,” she said.

This is how Basma justified her decision. And when asked if she worried about whether her decision was exposing her children to the possibility of contracting serious infections, the answer was a simple: “No.”

“Neither the virus scares me, nor the vaccine”

On another note, Laila, another antivaxxer, confessed that she lost confidence in medicine and the medical profession following the death of her father, followed by the death of her husband, as well as hearing some vaccine-related mystery stories here and there. This is what eventually led her to fear vaccines and refuse vaccination.

It also encouraged her to do more research on the subject. And according to Layla, getting to know Munir, a homeopath of Lebanese origin based in Oxford, was a turning point, as she became convinced of the futility of vaccines, and feared potential side effects.

She now applies her views on her 10-year-old daughter, whom she stopped vaccinating. However, when we contacted Munir, he sounded puzzled and surprised by what Laila had said. He refused to be labeled as an anti-vaxxer, as he does not have a stand against vaccination in general.

“Neither the virus scares me, nor the vaccine,” said Munir who has three children, two of whom have not received any vaccinations since birth.

For many others, these views were pushed even further and turned into organized anti-vaccination movements and campaigns, which is a dangerous development especially in the light of the global vaccination campaign targeting the Covid-19 pandemic, which has paralyzed our world for more than a year now

Take for example Mosleh Sareyeldine. He and a handful of his followers took Lebanon’s streets “to protest against wearing masks, against vaccines, and against the lie of the virus.”

My attempt to understand his point of view was unsuccessful. When attempting to have a chat with him, he requested that “I clean my Facebook page” before talking to him. Apparently, he did not like my pro-vaccine page, calling for people to vaccinate and warning them about the dangers of Covid-19, nor the comments of some my friends.

He then went on to accuse me, in a video he had posted on his Facebook page, of lacking the required “level” for him to answer my questions and added that whoever wants to do an interview with him needs to “offer obedience and kiss his hand publicly!”

Decisions that seem to lack any clear scientific arguments and may have grave consequences for an entire society. We may think that these are just individual cases within a much larger community, yet the pandemic, as well as the urgent need for vaccination as a way out of the darkness, has brought these people out again.

This is not the first confrontation between science, in the form of vaccines, and those who reject it. History has witnessed several similar confrontations, yet science have always seemed to triumph.

Anti-Vaccination in a historical context

Vaccines are certainly among the greatest things that modern man has produced in order to overcome epidemics. We may think the emergence of those refusing to vaccinate is recent, but the fear of vaccination is not at all a new thing. The age of anti-vaccination stems from the age of vaccination itself. It dates straight back to 1796 when the British physician and scientist Edward Jenner did his famous experiment and succeeded in developing a vaccine for smallpox.

Smallpox was not the first nor the last epidemic that set its claws in humanity, but what Jenner established paved the way for vaccines against other infectious diseases that would have claimed the lives of thousands or even millions without. This is what gave Jenner the title “father of immunology.”

A picture taken in 1901 by Doctor Alan Warner at the British Hospital in Leicester, of a child who was vaccinated against smallpox and another was not given the vaccine

Jenner’s discovery was staggering, a breakthrough that soon found its way around the world. Yet, because fear is an intrinsic part of human nature, Jenner had to fight doubts and disbelief from all directions: religious, political, and even scientific. Some feared the safety and effectiveness of the newfound vaccine. Others considered cowpox vaccination a danger and a suspected conspiracy, all of what reflected the fears of society at that time.

These movements intensified after Britain announced the Vaccination Acts of 1853 and 1867, which made the vaccination of all newborns and children up to the age of 14 compulsory. The legislation even imposed penalties for people who refuse to vaccinate their children.

In response, a National Anti-Vaccination League was established, which was soon met with more and more support, which in 1885 in Leicester led to massive demonstrations of tens of thousands of people against vaccination carrying dolls of Jenner and a child’s coffin.

The anti-vaccinators furthermore resorted to using newspapers, advertisements, and even cartoons to propagate against (compulsory) vaccination in general, which contributed to deepening fears and capturing ever larger numbers of skeptics.

These movements faded with time and in 1980 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the world free of smallpox as a result of the vaccination campaigns’ success.

Vaccines and Autism

Yet this was not the first nor the last of such movements. For example, anti-vaccinations were one of the main reasons behind the decline in pertussis vaccine recipients in Britain: from 81% in 1974 to only 31% in 1980. As a result, an outbreak of the disease arose soon after.

In 1998, controversy entered the spotlight once again. This time, it concerned the triple MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. It became very popular in media, especially after British doctor Andrew Wakefield published a study in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, which suggested a possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism in children, as well as diseases of the digestive system.

The media’s focus on the story ignited a crisis that contributed to a dramatic decrease in the number of recipients of the MMR vaccine, which contributed to the re-spreading of the above mentioned diseases, especially among children, and especially in the US and Britain.

Later, in 2010, Wakefield’s study was formally withdrawn by The Lancet and soon after he was expelled from the British Medical Council which prevented him from practicing medicine in his home country.

And here we are today, with the anti-vaccination campaigns regarding the Covid-19 virus. Again science stands in the face of ignorance and death, bearing evidence as a weapon.

Those rejecting the Covid 19 vaccine will try to plant suspicion and fear in the hearts of the people, even with the lack of clear arguments and no scientific evidence. As for the consequences, they are dangerous and will extend the duration of our war against the pandemic if not dealt with in a serious manner.

Between yesterday and today nothing much has changed. The presence of those who reject vaccination is still prominent. What has changed is that today they have more means to spread their ideas and thus attract larger numbers of people and wider audience.

Social media, as well as audio-visual and even written media, have become essential platforms to promote fallacies, conspiracy theories and fears that are not based on any logic or scientific evidence.

These platforms, which are available to anyone these days, are witnessing a “viral” spread of misinformation. Just as anti-vaxxers in the past benefited from the media and well-known faces joining them, so they do today.

Carole Samaha

Since the start Covid-19 epidemic and the production of a vaccine against it, the trend has resumed. Well-known faces in scientific, artistic, religious and political circles are used to reactivate discussion and reinforce community concerns.

Take the Lebanese singer Carole Samaha, for example. She is one of the Arab faces who publicly warned against the Covid-19 vaccine on her Twitter page as being “a game, and a deal.” She followed that by warning that the vaccines can “cause” autism.

Our attempt to speak with Samaha about these statements was rejected. According to Samaha’s business manager, she does not like to talk about the topic and all she wants to say in this regard she has said on her social media pages.

Here we see the negative role of the media in this matter. And Samaha is hardly the only one. There are others like Haifa Wehbe, Ragheb Alama and many more who, followed by millions in the Arab world, spread doubt. Even international celebrities such as Robert Deniro did so.

Consequently, any attempt to limit the influence of these people on society and people’s lives will necessarily have to pass through the various media. In the current era of social media platforms, the media must play a far greater role in spreading awareness, correcting fallacies supported by scientific evidence, dispelling people’s fears, and not paving the way for vaccine-doubting celebrities for higher ratings.

What we can see clearly during this pandemic is the focus of the news on exceptional or rare cases linked to vaccination that are capable of spreading terror among the masses. This is a moral responsibility that touches people’s lives and their future before anything else.

From this point of view, Facebook, for example, as well as Twitter, Instagram and others, have taken measures to limit the spread of misleading and false information. Yet, despite this, the anti-vax movements still find ways to spread their fallacies.

Thereby, the body supervising the media, in cooperation with the medical authorities, has a fundamental role in enhancing people’s confidence in science, as well as correcting any false information.

Of course, there are other and complex reasons for anti-vaccination advocates, including ideological, social and even psychological, but awareness campaigns can explain the dangers of not vaccinating and its effects on society that can then be translated into effective policies on the ground that would greatly limit the impact of the anti-vaxxers.

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