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A Community Conversation About Health and Responsibility: Vaccines and Beyond

Part 14: Fear, Shame & Bullying

On May 10th, we hosted a documentary film called The Greater Good. In the process of bringing this film to the island, we learned the following:

1-Amongst parents of young children, there is a growing culture of shaming and judgment with regard to vaccine choices. As a result, this topic is carefully avoided at regular gathering events for families.
2- A secret, invitation-only Facebook group has been formed for parents who are seeking support and information in a safe environment.
3- Several parents who attended our screening of The Greater Good experienced significant fear during casual conversation, stopping mid-sentence and visibly shaking.
4- During the “Question Brainstorm,” many questions asked were shockingly basic, suggesting that access to even fundamental information is being shut down on our island.
5- At the end of our screening, during our circle chat, serious concern was expressed because we were taping the conversation. Parents feared what would happen if the video ever went public.

When we originally planned the screening of The Greater Good, we were expecting some controversy. What we found on Vashon Island was far more troubling.  

Bullying. Fear. Secrecy. Shaming.
So let’s come right out and say it. A bully culture exists on Vashon around the subject of vaccines. This bully culture involves attempts to frighten and shame parents into compliance with the standard vaccine schedule.

Now, do anti-vaccine simplifiers bully? Absolutely. Anti-vaccine bullies say things like “anyone who vaccinates a child should be arrested for child abuse.” Cruel, bullying, and grossly inaccurate. But such statements don’t result in an actual visit from CPS. Anti-vaccine bullies do not bully from a position of power.

Pro-vaccine simplifiers, however, are bullying from a position of power. The Stranger proudly ran this article in 2011: “Hey, Stupid Fucking Anti-Vaccine Baby Killers: Stop Killing Our Babies!” Behind closed doors, doctors threaten to report parents to CPS if they decline a vaccine. A local doctor injected a child with multiple vaccines even when the parent had clearly stated a desire to delay vaccinations due to a medical history of adverse vaccine reactions. The Beachcomber uses its publishing power to regularly characterize unvaccinated children as a public health risk and parents who vary from the recommended vaccine schedule as selfish and ignorant. Pro-vaccine simplifiers impact their community from a position of power and with the support of existing power structures.

So, what does pro-vaccine bullying look like on Vashon?
(1) Parent fear at our schools.
A few months ago, a concerned mother of a Chautauqua student called March Twisdale about a poster that implied that breast milk is more harmful than vaccines. The poster was placed prominently in the entryway of the school. When March asked whether the woman would speak to the school about the sign, she said, “Oh no. I’m too scared to say anything. But, since this is your issue...I hoped maybe you could do something?”
(2) Employee fear at our schools.
Another parent who works in the Vashon School District has chosen an alternative vaccine schedule based upon documented, CDC-approved medical contraindications. Despite this unique situation, while chatting with March Twisdale at a local cafe, when another school employee walked in, this parent immediately shut down the conversation...fearful that his/her job could be at risk.
(3) Threats on Social Media
During a recent conversation about vaccine medicine, an islander posted that unvaccinated kids should be removed from their home by CPS and fully vaccinated in foster care. A parent’s response to the 2011 Stranger article included a threat to “flat out murder (non-vaccinating parents) without qualm or guilt” should his vaccinated baby ever catch a vaccine-preventable disease.
(4) Selective reporting.
Last November, the FDA/NIH reported on the results of a jointly funded, extensive study exploring the efficacy of the acellular pertussis vaccine. The conclusion of the study was both unexpected and alarming: vaccinated individuals catch and spread pertussis at the same rate as unvaccinated individuals. After exposure to pertussis, vaccinated individuals become asymptomatic carriers instead of becoming ill. This is great if you’re the vaccinated person who doesn’t feel sick, not great if you’re a newborn in contact with that asymptomatic carrier. In January, March Twisdale asked The Beachcomber to run an op-ed or write an article about this new information.  The Beachcomber, which in 2012 had stated in an editorial that, “Those who opt not to vaccinate against diseases like pertussis...are putting others at risk,” declined to report on this important new study. Why? Their explanation was that “we really try to stay local in our news section.”

When Good Intentions Go Too Far
Most of this bullying is being carried out with good intent. Pro-vaccine simplifiers are genuinely trying to protect everyone. But bullying is taking a passion for a cause too far. Informed consent means that you get a chance to be informed and then you decide whether or not to give consent. Terrified compliance is not informed consent. When it comes to medical decisions, no one (not even your doctor) should apply that kind of pressure.

This environment of pro-vaccine bullying can largely be traced back to 2009, when a group of pro-vaccine simplifiers sought help from national, state and county public health officials to increase Vashon’s vaccination rate. The unintended consequence of their effort has been 5 years of fear, shaming, and blaming. In other words, bullying.

And it’s not even working! On Vashon, the vaccination rates stay essentially the same from kindergarten through 6th grade. This consistency suggests that bully tactics are not encouraging people to re-examine their vaccination choices as their children grow. Instead, we’ve created a culture where parents can no longer safely trade information or ideas. Intimidation and bullying does not silence questions nor soothe fears, but it’s very effective at silencing answers.
Bullying promotes fear, fear promotes silence, silence promotes ignorance, and ignorance promotes even more fear. And that is very bad for public health.

So, we call upon all people on Vashon, regardless of your opinions on vaccine medicine, to take a stand against bullying. Let’s bring vaccine discussions out of the shadows and into the public sphere. Let’s make it safe to talk again. Say something if you see or hear bullying, especially if it is coming from a friend or someone you know well. If you’ve accidentally slipped into bully language yourself, apologize and try to do better.

America thrives upon the respect and defense of our right to self-determination. Treat informed consent exactly like freedom of speech. Make your motto “I may disagree with the choice you have made, but I will defend your right to make it.”

Because, as June Jordan said, “Freedom is indivisible, or nothing at all.”