Coffee with an (ex) anti-vaxxer!

A few days ago, I shared a Texas Monthly news article on Facebook. The article features a prominent anti-vaxxer, Heather Simpson, who ended up getting the COVID19 vaccine (AND who is starting to vaccinate her daughter). It’s a fascinating read.

Wellllll…guess who I had coffee with yesterday?! That’s right. Heather Simpson.

I, of course, had a million questions. Way too many for one coffee. I don’t know much about this world and we need to if we want to change the landscape. For this meeting though, I was most interested in two things from her unique perspective:

  1. Describe the problem

  2. Brainstorm solutions

Heather and I chatted away.

Describe the problem

Vaccine hesitant vs. Anti-vaxxer. Before I start, I would like to point out that there is a distinct, and important, difference between vaccine hesitant and anti-vaxxer. Vaccine hesitant, in this context, is hesitant specifically to COVID19 vaccine. This groups gets the other vaccines, but is concerned about speed (speed does not mean rushed, see my previous post here) or the new mRNA technology (see my explanation here), or a multitude of other reasons. This post is about anti-vaxxers against all vaccines, including COVID19.

From hearing her story, I realized that there is a spectrum of anti-vaxxers. There are the extreme, but there are many others less extreme. This may be obvious to some, but I certainly wasn’t aware of the specific groups, in which Heather gave creative names.

  1. Scared. These are closest to vaccine hesitant. These people are scared, but CAN be helped with facts. We just need to get them the facts. For example, when Heather was an anti-vaxxer she was most worried about the aluminum in vaccines. Once she understood the science, though, Heather could hold the facts close to her heart. When her daughter got her first vaccine last month, Heather kept repeating those facts in her head at the doctors office. She couldn’t find a way to talk herself out of the vaccine because she had scientific based facts. Even through tears.

  2. Ex-vaxxers. This is the next group down the spectrum. This is a group of parents in which something happened with their kids (autism, ADHD). And no one has answers for them. And, worse, their physician sometimes brushes off the problem. Heather explained to me the only thing that would help this group is to offer an answer focused on data. For example, conducting more scientific studies on autism or ADHD. We need to provide an answer OTHER than vaccines.

  3. 100% natural people. She ranked this group next, which seems to be deeply rooted in religion. Basically, this group thinks “you can play God” or “God did not make a mistake with your body and your immune system.” For example, you won’t get cancer because you eat healthy. Or, your kid got a urinary tract infection because you let them have McDonalds. This group doesn’t touch anything pharmaceutical. Interestingly, influencers in this group makes a lucrative living by selling natural supplements through pyramid schemes.

  4. Light conspiracy theorists. This group is next. They are the willfully ignorant. They watched YouTube videos and can’t be pulled out. This group starts dabbling in off the wall comments, like they’re spraying “chem-trails” in the air. (I had to look up “chem-trails”. “Chemtrails, short for chemical trails, are what some call the white trails you see left behind as a plane passes overhead. Believers in the chemical aspect of chemtrails say those trails are actually clouds of chemicals used by the government or some other large scale entity for a variety of nefarious purposes from weather modification, to human population control via sterilization, to even mind control”.)

  5. Lizard people. And then, finally, we have the extreme anti-vaxxer group. They are deep in the conspiracy world. We are talking QAnon, thinking Hillary Clinton is a lizard and drinks the blood of babies. Their whole world view is altered. Heather called them “lizard people”.

How will the COVID19 vaccine change the anti-vaxx world?

It seems like the COVID19 vaccine is causing people to jump from one group to another for other vaccines. For example, she described a family who was vaccine hesitant, but still got all childhood vaccines. However, because of COVID19, they have moved from “hesitant” to “scared” group because COVID19 vaccine was “rushed” and so that must mean all vaccines have faulty processes. And now they won’t get any other vaccines.

So what can we, public health officials, do?

I’m not going to pretend that I have found the solution on how to stop a international movement. But, there were some themes that I gathered from our conversation…

  • Primary prevention: Prevent it before it ever occurs through education and scientific communication. There is a lot of work we can do here. For example, we can specifically reach people when a family comes to a healthcare providers’ office.

  • Secondary prevention: Reduce the impact that has already occurred. For me, at least, it’s helpful to know that not all anti-vaxxers are a lost cause. There is a spectrum and each group needs to be targeted in a different way.

  • Tertiary prevention: Soften the impact of anti-vaxxer movement that has lasting effects. We are never going to win the battle of misinformation, so we need to figure out a way to calm the fire. This HAS to be a conversation with social media giants (which I’m having with FB) and a conversation at dinner tables, and everything in between.

So, all this to say, I agree with the Texas Monthly article: “The movement entraps people but also that it’s possible—if much harder—for minds to change.”

Love, YLE