Eileen Danneman is at war. “It’s a war between good and evil. It’s a primordial, cosmic war,” she says.
Her website, which is called the “Vaccine Liberation Army”, is one of a network of blogs and forums espousing, largely, the same message: that vaccines are bad for you, and that they are part of a nefarious, nebulous scheme by “Big Pharma” and in some cases the government.
In a way, it is a war – one of opinion, being waged on blogs, on parenting forums, in the media and, lately, by politicians.
An outbreak of measles – one of the most virulent diseases known to man, but one which the CDC declared eliminated (defined as the absence of continuous disease transmission for greater than 12 months) in the United States in 2000 – in the US this year has brought the issue to the forefront of public awareness.
Last year saw a drastic spike in measles cases compared to the years since 2000, with 644 cases reported in the US, and 2015 is on track to erxceed that easily, with 102 reported in 14 states in January alone. Two other diseases that had been all but eradicated from the US after mass vaccination for them began – whooping cough, also known as pertussis, and the mumps – are making comebacks of their own as well.
The problem is that public trust in vaccines is waning – and as more parents opt not to inoculate their children, more and more parts of the country start to drop below the threshold at which “herd immunity” protects against outbreaks.
The resulting outbreaks have begun to cause a backlash against the so-called “anti-vaxxers” that began in earnest earlier this decade but has intensified now. A widely shared article by Julia Ioffe in the New Republic in 2013 concluded: “So thanks a lot, anti-vaccine parents. You took an ethical stand against big pharma and the autism your baby was not going to get anyway, and, by doing so, killed some babies and gave me, an otherwise healthy 31-year-old woman, the whooping cough in the year 2013.”
Jennifer and Dave Simon, of Oakland, California, gave an interview to CNN after they learned that their infant daughter – too young to be vaccinated – had been exposed to measles by an older child whose parents had chosen not to vaccinate. “Their choice endangered my child,” Jennifer Simon said.
The “anti-vaxxer” community on the internet has responded vigorously. “Zero measles deaths in 10 years, but over 100 measles vaccine deaths reported,” blared a site called Blacklisted News. Alex Jones’s Infowars.com – a good bellwether for any conspiracy theory – ran a video blaming the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine for causing the measles outbreak. Infowars correspondent Rob Dew looked at the list of ingredients in the vaccine and asked viewers: “So, are you going to go out and inject that stuff into your body like the good people on the nightly news tell you? Well? Are ya?”
On forums like Mothering.com, opinion is split and tensions are running high. The “I’m Not Vaccinating” forum is separate from the others. “I am so, so sick of the constant hate directed at non-vaccinators by people who haven’t done a lick of research into the issue,” reads one post, titled “Can I just rant here for a second?”
“I think there is a concerted attempt going to get those who vaccinate to shun and harass people who question vaccines,” someone answers. “It might be exposure to pro-vaccine propaganda. There is a lot of it around.”
In the separate, pro-vaccine forum on the same site, a user posted to complain about the controversy that sharing her views could create in her social sphere. “Recently I made a fairly neutral comment on a Facebook friend’s public pro-vaccine post and one of my friends who doesn’t vax saw it and commented with anti-vax research and got in a huge debate.”
“Yesterday I decided to finally publicly share my views on my own Facebook and link to Roald Dahl’s letter begging parents to vaccinate ,” the post continued. “I’m pretty sure that was the end of that friendship.”
The catalyst for all this was a study by a British scientist called Andrew Wakefield that pointed to a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The study was thoroughly and comprehensively discredited in the scientific community, and Wakefield himself was struck from the medical register by the UK’s General Medical Council. There are no links between the MMR vaccine and autism. But online, the link between the two remains, ironically, virulent.
Danneman, however, describes Wakefield as “a saint”. Her organisation is manufacturing vinyl car stickers that say “The greatest lie ever told is that vaccines are safe and effective” and she is selling them by the hundreds, she says, “all over the United States, in England and Australia”.
At one point in our interview she compared Merck, the pharmaceutical company that makes the MMR vaccine, with Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor at Auschwitz.
The internet is awash with blogs like Danneman’s, with names that are variations on “Vaccine Truth”. On Infowars articles about vaccines get “30-40% higher” readership than other topics, according to Dew, who described it as a “hot topic”.
Wendy Callahan runs the blog VaccineTruth.org. “They’re starting to get really upset with ‘anti-vaxxers’,” she tells me. “People wanting to sue the parents and all kinds of crazy stuff.” She says that her two children were vaccinated, but that she would “give my right arm” to be able to change that. “I applaud those unvaccinated parents,” she says.
Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College who studies misperceptions in politics and healthcare, said that after the Wakefield paper the MMR rate in the UK dipped far more than in the US. “The UK is what we want to avoid,” he tells me. “To this point, we’ve dodged a bullet. The US didn’t see the same rate in decline that the UK saw.”
But, he tells me, there are signs that this is changing. He also disapproves of politicians getting involved. “Obama is a controversial figure in some circles. We don’t want that [muddying the water]. He’s not the surgeon-general.”
Dr Mobeen Rathore is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on infectious diseases. “It’s like in politics – when people have made up their mind it’s really challenging to change their opinions,” he says. “But people on the fence need to know that vaccines are safe.” He adds that, despite what “anti-vaxxers” claim, the approval of a vaccine requires a much higher standard than for an antibiotic.
Danneman, a yogi who has been practising transcendental meditation for 40 years, believes that most of the aggression focused against “anti-vaxxers” can be chalked up to the fact that Mercury is currently in retrograde. She is philosophical about the debate. “Would it surprise me to find out I was wrong?” she says. “It’s a possibility. I have to do what I do, the pro-vaccine people have to do what they do.
“I’m not angry, I can cohabit with them. It’s the play of good and evil, male, female, it’s just the way life is,” she says. “I take it courageously.”
Over the phone, I can almost hear her shrug. “And if I’m wrong – hey.”
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