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Could Anti-Vaxxers Bring Us Back into Quarantine?

Cover Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko via Unsplash

We’ve reached that time of year where the air is starting to feel crisp. The leaves are changing color, the pumpkin spice industry is booming, and the election is creeping ever closer. To throw in some extra chaos to the enduring pandemic, flu season is lurking just around the corner. Scientists are warning about the potential for a detrimental synergy between COVID-19 and influenza, and these cautions are in large part being taken seriously. Universities across the country have adopted schedules that urge students to spend the peak of flu season at home, and others have mandated flu vaccine requirements for anyone participating in campus life this fall. However, directives like these aren’t sitting well with everyone. Anti-vaxxers are the most vocal objectors. 

The term “anti-vaxxer” has transcended into cultural legend in recent years, functioning more as the butt of countless jokes than as a genuinely helpful descriptor. What exactly does it mean to be an anti-vaxxer? What are the arguments that motivate this perspective? With the potential for a nasty and destructive upcoming flu season, there’s no time like the present to dive into the soul of the anti-vaxxer.

Profile of an Anti-Vaxxer

First, a note on terminology. As expressed by Daniel Salmon, director of the Institute of Vaccine Safety at Johns Hopkins University, in an interview with ABC News, the phrase “anti-vaxxer” doesn’t entirely capture the frame of mind. While there exists a significant population that is hesitant or wary about the effects of vaccines, the population that strictly rejects them on a fundamental level is far smaller.

Given this caveat, much of the most vehement opposition to vaccination comes from a notably privileged sector of society. To be more specific, what is at hand here is a confluence of white privilege, educational privilege, and socioeconomic privilege. Oftentimes, the parents who purposely forgo vaccinations for their children are the ones who can afford to spend time inundating themselves with scientific (or non-scientific) publications and seeking out ways to circumvent requirements. In 15 states, parents can obtain exemptions to school vaccine requisites on “philosophical” grounds.

The Anti-Vaxxer’s Arguments

Much of the group’s concern flows from a perceived connection between vaccination and autism. A substance called thimerosal is used in some vaccines as a preservative, added to avoid contamination by bacteria or fungi in multi-dose vials. However, thimerosal measures in at about half mercury by weight, which has long been a point of conversation as it relates to the development of autism spectrum disorder. In an effort to put the contention to bed, the United States Food and Drug Administration has cited research from the National Academy of Medicine, reporting that “the evidence favors rejection of a link between thimerosal and autism.” For those who remain concerned, thimerosal-free versions of vaccines generally recommended for those 6 years old and younger are also on the market.

Many are simply anxious about the potential for dangerous reactions to vaccination. The United States Department of Health and Human Services offers a Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System for individuals to note negative health problems in the wake of vaccination. The Center for Disease Control then uses the information provided to explore whether the reported events show causation or simple concurrence. The portal saw roughly 48,000 submissions in 2019, although the CDC declared the vast majority of these (estimated at about 85% to 90%) to be “mild,” including “arm soreness, or crying and mild irritability.”

These are not the only worries, however. Some anti-vaxxers just prefer more natural approaches to the practice of medicine, while others object on the basis of conspiracy about the federal government. 

The Anti-Anti-Vaxxer’s Arguments

Vaccines are often highlighted as early as secondary school biology class. They oftentimes contain small doses of the bacteria or virus they are meant to target, which then induces the immune system to develop a hearty stock of T-lymphocytes and B-lymphocytes that can be used to ward off future infection. A wide swath of the country finds this logic pretty hard to argue with, citing the decline of once-prevalent afflictions like polio or smallpox as evidence of vaccines’ effectiveness. Today, polio is not something most Americans are pushed to think about on a daily basis. In 1952, it was absolute terror for the parents of the roughly 60,000 children who had been infected. 

Beyond the prevalence of these fundamental scientific principles, perhaps the strongest argument in the pro-vaccination camp is herd immunity. The concept describes a trend in which populations with high rates of vaccination or previous exposure to a virus or disease are largely able to fend off major outbreaks. As a result, individuals who are unable to receive certain vaccines (as in the case of newborns and measles) are broadly safeguarded. Of course, the extent of herd immunity’s effectiveness is related to how swiftly a disease moves through a population. For example, highly contagious afflictions demand more significant rates of vaccination or previous exposure for the mechanism to kick in. Additionally, when the unvaccinated segment of a population fraternizes amongst itself in close proximity, the potential for outbreak also crops up. 

Consequently, vaccination is not something the federal government takes lightly. The expense of the Vaccines for Children program, which vaccinates youth who lack access to vaccines by way of minimal insurance or other barriers at no cost, came in at roughly $4.7 billion in 2019 alone. 

Despite the provision of these resources, however, recent events show a grim future for the prospect of herd immunity. Back in January of 2019, for example, the measles flared up in Washington’s Clark County. In the 2017-2018 academic year, approximately 76.5% of the area’s kindergarten population had received the vaccine. The proportion needed for herd immunity in measles? Significantly larger, falling in the range of 92% to 95%. 

The Politicization of Vaccination

Today, many fear that any vaccine aimed at combating COVID-19 will be pushed too quickly through the development process. Much of this worry is connected to a lack of faith in the Trump administration, with some pointing to the (potentially premature) acceleration of projects with promising trials on the federal government’s dime. Between May and the end of July, polling organization YouGov found a 14% drop in the percentage of adults willing to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. In other words, suspicion about a COVID-19 vaccine is not yet a factor that can be dismissed when discussing the trajectory of the virus. 

In the midst of this uncertainty, scientists are pushing for influenza vaccination on a massive scale over the next few months. Will you be getting your flu shot this season? Let us know in the poll below. 

Cover Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko via Unsplash

  • Are you getting the flu shot this season?

    • already done!
    • it’s on my to-do list
    • if I can get around to it
    • no vaccines for me


Written by Megan Pontin

Enthusiastic word-collector, avid pancake-consumer, and experienced hammock-lounger. Student at Cornell University.

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