Anti-vaxxers demonstrate the power of anecdotes

The rise in incidence of preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough due to people not getting their children vaccinated has resulted in some states trying to tighten up the loose standard for getting exemptions. But that effort has stalled due to fierce opposition from the anti-vaxxers.

Four months after a measles outbreak at Disneyland, state legislators seeking to tighten immunisation laws across the country are running the gauntlet of anti-vaccination activists who have bombarded them with emails and phone calls, heckled them at public meetings, harassed their staff, organized noisy marches and vilified them on social media.

Three states blindsided by the activists’ sheer energy – Oregon, Washington and North Carolina – have either pulled back or killed bills that would have ended a non-specific “personal belief” exemption for parents who don’t want to vaccinate their children.

Now the battleground is California, which bore the brunt of the measles outbreak at the beginning of the year and saw school closures, extraordinary quarantine measures and a vigorous public debate lamenting the fact that a disease declared eradicated 15 years ago is once again a public health threat.

A health committee meeting in Sacramento, the state capital, on Wednesday turned into a tense showdown between lawmakers seeking to argue that the science is unequivocally on the side of universal vaccination, and activists accusing them of being in the pocket of unscrupulous big pharmaceutical companies.

One activist, Terry Roark, told the state senate committee her child had died from a vaccine and feared others could be next if parents lost the right to decide what was in their best interests.

“Innocent people will die,” she said tearfully. “Innocent children will be killed.”

The meeting degenerated at points into yelling and screaming, and two activists were removed.

The way they have fought shows the difficulty in combating irrational fears. The anti-vaxxers have two things going in their favor. One is the fact that a single anecdote can carry more punch than a mass of statistical counter-arguments. The other is that people fear more the bad results that result from taking an action than from not taking an action. In other words, if people get their child vaccinated and something bad happens, they feel more responsible and guilty than if they did nothing and something bad happens. Acts of omission are easier to rationalize away than acts of commission.


  1. dean says

    The irrationality of the anti-vaccination group is equaled only by the dishonesty of the loudest spokespeople. We have an especially loud group of them here in West Michigan, and surprisingly they are in close alignment with the tea-baggers; I don’t think those two groups align very often. Their primary arguments
    -- the old link to autism and other brain damage
    -- the “children are our property, not the government’s” line -- the tea-bagger influence, I think
    -- the usual lines about the “loads of studies showing harm” -- the studies they can never produce
    -- other conspiracies too numerous to mention

    Many conspiracy folks, like the Kennedy assassination crowd, or the moon landing hoax crowd, are simply targets for good laughs. These vaccination folks are dangerous: some seem to be entirely without a conscience

  2. says

    The fundamental problem is what it has always been: People settle on a conclusion first and then loook for reasons to support it, rather than the other way around.

    Once people are invested in believing something, it’s next to impossible to dissuade them. They would rather kill their own children than admit being wrong. Against such obstinacy, what use is education?

  3. Ben Finney says

    Fortunately, in Australia, our government still has enough confidence in medical science to take a firm line against parents who endanger the community’s health.

    The government proposes to stop childcare payments to parents who opt out of vaccination for their children.

    It’s not often a skeptic can applaud the Abbott government’s decisions, but this is a happy exception.

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