The Anti-Vaccine Movement’s New Frontier


HR King
May 29, 2001
The mother of four brought her children, ranging in age from grade school to high school, to the doctor’s office last summer for their annual checkup. When their pediatrician, Robert Froehlke, said that it was time for shots and several boosters and then mentioned the Covid vaccine, her reaction stunned him. “I’m not going to kill my children,” Froehlke recalls her saying, as she began to shake and weep. He ushered her out of the examination room, away from her children, and tried to calm her. “We’re just trying to help your kids be healthy,” he told her. But he didn’t press the issue; he sensed that she wasn’t persuadable at that moment. And he didn’t want to drive her away from his practice altogether. “That really shook me up,” he says.
In his 14 years of practicing medicine in Littleton, a Denver suburb, Froehlke had seen parents decline their children’s vaccines for the sake of a more “natural” lifestyle. He had also seen parents, worried about overstressing their children’s bodies, request that vaccinations be given on different schedules. But until the past nine months or so, he had rarely seen parents with already vaccinated children refuse additional vaccines. Some of these parents were even rejecting boosters of the same shots they unquestioningly accepted for their children just a few years earlier.
Froehlke estimates that he has faced around 20 such parents, maybe more: a father who said he had done his own research and sent Froehlke a ream of printouts from right-wing and anti-vaccine websites to prove it; a mother (who is a nurse) who adamantly refused routine boosters for a kindergarten-age daughter — and then later, when the child got sick with Covid-19, asked Froehlke without success to give the deworming drug ivermectin to her. The overall number of these new doubters in his practice hasn’t been large, he says, but considering it was almost zero before the pandemic, the trend is both notable and worrisome.
These parents are not uneducated, Froehlke told me. Some of them are literally rocket scientists at the nearby Lockheed Martin facility. What has happened, he suspects, is that rampant misinformation related to the Covid-19 vaccines, and the fact that pundits like Tucker Carlson on Fox News have devoted a lot of time to bashing them — among other untruths, he has suggested that the vaccines make people more likely to contract Covid-19, not less — has begun to taint some people’s view of long-established vaccines. “I think we’re going to see more of this, more spillover of persons who had previously vaccinated their children and who are now not going to vaccinate,” he says.
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Such doubt has been accompanied by, and may have been augmented by, an erosion of confidence in medical expertise generally. “We used to be able to persuade more, with our background and training,” he says. Parents trusted his advice because he was a doctor. Now, when he cites the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other official guidelines, skeptical parents sometimes accuse him of being a shill — of having been lied to and taken in by some vast conspiracy. “It’s very concerning, this lack of trust,” he says.
Southern California; Savannah, Ga.; rural Alabama; Houston — pediatricians in all these places told me about similar experiences with parents pushing back against routine vaccines. Jason Terk, a pediatrician in Keller, Texas, called the phenomenon “the other contagion” — a new hesitation or refusal by patients to take vaccines they previously accepted. Eric Ball, a pediatrician in Orange County, Calif., said the number of children in his practice who were fully vaccinated had declined by 5 percent, compared with before the pandemic. He has been hearing more questions about established childhood vaccines — How long has it been around? Why give it? — from parents who vaccinated older children without much hesitation but are now confronted with the prospect of vaccinating babies born during the pandemic. Some of these parents end up holding off, he says, telling him they want to do more research. “There’s a lot of misinformation about the Covid vaccines, and it just bleeds into everything,” he says. “These fake stories and bad information get stuck in people’s heads, and they understandably get confused.”
In another part of Orange County, Kate Williamson reports seeing more reluctance in her pediatric practice. Though she notes that vaccine hesitancy is not new — doctors in relatively conservative Orange County, in particular, have weathered earlier anti-vaccine flare-ups — the politicization of the issue seems different this time. “I have this worry in the back of my mind — that we’re up against something that we have never seen before,” she says. “To have something that could be anti-science as part of a political identity and culture is very concerning.”
In Savannah, according to a pediatrician named Ben Spitalnick, many first-time parents have been asking questions about vaccines that he had not heard in the past. Two years of seeing the doubts about Covid vaccines expressed on social media, he thinks, is causing parents to question other science as well. He and his colleagues — like Williamson and Ball — inform parents that they should find other doctors if they choose not to vaccinate their children. And, he told me, a number of patients have indeed left his practice.

While there is a lack of data about how widespread this newfound intransigence toward vaccines is, the possibility that it may be spreading worries nearly every expert I queried. The anti-vaccine movement is “so strong, so well organized, so well funded, I doubt it will stop at Covid-19 vaccines,” says Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “I think it’s going to extend to childhood vaccinations.”
Political affiliation may be an important factor behind what Froehlke and others are experiencing. Though his practice is in Jefferson County, which leans progressive, he sees many patients from nearby Douglas County, which is more conservative. (It went for Trump by more than 7 points in 2020.) And Froehlke thinks he may be seeing more newly minted naysayers than some of his peers — a couple of other pediatricians I spoke to in Denver had not seen more doubters — simply because more of his patients lean to the right politically.
David Broniatowski, an associate professor at George Washington University who studies online misinformation, says that because Covid vaccines have become so charged politically, one of the largest groups in the country, white conservatives, may have also become the most susceptible to the skulduggery swirling around vaccines. “To my mind, they are a vulnerable audience that is targeted for manipulation by a pretty small number of grifters,” Broniatowski says. “It’s a crazy scenario where a dominant demographic in the country may be the most vulnerable population right now.”
In 2019, even before the pandemic struck, the World Health Organization listed growing vaccine hesitancy as one of its top 10 threats to global health. W.H.O. officials often refer to the contagion of misinformation that foments vaccine hesitancy as an “infodemic”: mountains of incorrect and sometimes flagrantly conspiratorial information about diseases that leads people to avoid lifesaving medical practices, like the vaccines used to fight them. Now the pandemic has given anti-vaccine advocates an opportunity to field-test a variety of messages and find new recruits. And one message in particular seems to be resonating widely: Vaccines and vaccine mandates are an attack on freedom.
Although it is convenient to refer to anti-vaccine efforts as a “movement,” there really is no single movement. Rather, disparate interests are converging on a single issue. Many reject the “anti-vaccine” label altogether, claiming instead to be “pro-vaccine choice,” “pro-safe vaccine” or “vaccine skeptical.” For some, there may be a way to make money by pushing the notion that vaccines are dangerous. For politicians and commentators, the “tyranny” of vaccine mandates can offer a political rallying cry. For states like Russia, which has disseminated both pro- and anti-vaccine messages on social media in other countries, vaccines are another target for informational warfare. For conspiracy-minded private citizens, vaccine misinformation can be a way to make sense of the world, even if the explanations they arrive at are often nightmarish and bizarre.
The process of swaying people with messaging that questions vaccines is how disinformation — deliberately fabricated falsehoods and half-truths — becomes misinformation, or incorrect information passed along unwittingly. Motivated by the best intentions, these people nonetheless end up amplifying the contagion, and the damaging impact, of half-truths and distortions. “This is a deadly movement,” Peter Hotez told me. “With things like terrorism and nuclear proliferation, we have lots of infrastructure. For this, we don’t have anything.”

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