Vaccines are one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Credited with saving millions of lives each year from diseases like smallpox, measles, diphtheria, and polio, one would expect vaccines to be enthusiastically celebrated or, at the very least, widely embraced. Why is it, then, that we are witnessing the widespread proliferation of anti-vaccination sentiment? Why is it that some communities in North America, including, for example, areas of Vancouver, are now turning their backs on vaccines in numbers large enough to threaten herd immunity? Current research has shown that over 25% of Canadian parents are concerned or uncertain about the association between vaccines and autism. A similar percentage of parents worry that vaccines could cause serious harm to their children. What are the social forces contributing to this rise in vaccine hesitancy?
There are multiple interrelated reasons for the existence and spread of both aggressive anti-vaccination and subtle vaccine-hesitant perspectives, but they often stem from issues surrounding trust, personal choice, and fear. Vaccination myths are being circulated in communities and wide social networks, and these myths create scientifically unwarranted concerns about the risks and safety of vaccines. While many parties contribute to the proliferation of these myths, there is little doubt that complimentary and alternative (CAM) practitioners are playing a role.
Numerous studies have demonstrated links between CAM and anti-vaccination attitudes; CAM use is associated with not vaccinating children, and CAM training is associated with anti-vaccination attitudes. In our recent investigation of 330 naturopath websites in the Canadian western provinces of British Columbia and Alberta, we found 53 websites containing vaccine-hesitant discourse. That is to say, these websites explicitly denounced vaccinations, raised issues with the harms and risks of vaccines, and/or offered alternative vaccination services such as homeopathic prophylaxes. This easily accessible discourse can contribute to confirmation bias for those already critical of vaccines, and can also heighten skepticism among those with doubts. With increasing numbers of the population going online for health information, it is reasonable to be concerned that discourse of this kind might plant unwarranted seeds of doubt in the minds of some individuals previously comfortable with vaccines. These messages could also spread: if you’ve ever seen someone share fake news on Facebook, you know what we are talking about.
Why is it that some communities in North America […] are now turning their backs on vaccines in numbers large enough to threaten herd immunity?
Notably, it is incorrect and unfair to arrive at the conclusion that CAM = antivaxx. It is, however, important to recognize the presence of significant anti-vaccination sentiment in these communities. We must begin to think of ways to tackle myths and behaviours that put both individuals and communities in harm’s way.
The solutions, of course, will vary by jurisdiction. As outlined in our paper, in Canada the Competition Bureau and Health Canada could modify advertising standards to curb treatment and performance claims online, and the latter institution could even act to entirely prevent the sale of demonstrably ineffective natural health products like homeopathic remedies. In addition, the right of CAM practitioners like naturopaths to self-regulate their profession could be reconsidered, as there is little indication that evidence-based standards are enforced. Alternatively, third party oversight could force the adoption of such standards. Lastly, better application and enforcement of existing law could help. As more naturopaths and other CAM practitioners position themselves as primary care providers, they become legally responsible to uphold existing common law standards of informed consent. Failing to disclose the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting vaccines when recommending not to vaccinate or to use an ineffective vaccine alternative likely constitutes negligence.
Vaccines are a matter of life and death. We live in a society privileged to have access to incredible medical developments that empower us to make decisions that improve life for ourselves and others. We owe it to ourselves and others to ensure the science of vaccines is not obscured by those attempting to inject doubt and fear into the conversation.
Featured image credit: Virus by qimono. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.