The Anti-Vaxx Playbook and Our Future Hopes

Published August 27, 2021, 1:00 PM

by Philip Cu Unjieng

With the report that several members of the IATF were throwing in the towel regarding ECQ as an effective means to curb the spread of the new COVID variants here in the Philippines, it becomes more crucial than ever to recognize that while perhaps not foolproof, it’s vaccination and herd immunity that stand out as our best hopes. And that’s why the fact that there’s still a strong anti-vaccination lobby here is worrisome.

A DOH official gives a vaccine shot during the DOH School-based Immunization kick-off activity at EM’s Signal Village Elementary School in Taguig on Wednesday. (MANILA BULLETIN)

In this article, let’s try to understand the origin of vaccines and why the anti-vaxxers’ playbook can carry so much weight and still sway the opinion of so many.

When a tragic event such as the death of a child or a child being struck with a devastating illness or condition occurs, there is a clear demand from parents to understand ‘why’ this happened. The reality is that there are many possible and likely reasons for a tragedy to occur.

For the anti-vaxxer there is only ever one answer – that a vaccine is to blame.

Childhood immunizations tend to take place at the ages when certain conditions such as autism start to exhibit, even though one does not cause the other. The causes of these conditions are not well understood yet. Hence, the difficulty for non-specialist doctors to provide a simple answer to the questions of parents whose child suffered or died from an adverse event that occurred close to vaccination. Because of this lack of understanding, anti-vaxxers with the certainty and zeal of an apocalyptic religious leader can push one to believe that it can only have been the vaccine that wronged them and their family.

The simplicity of the anti-vaxxer’s playbook is its strength. First, find an individual who has been afflicted with something and propose the same single reason for the cause… a vaccine. It does not matter whether the affliction is a learning disability or even a death; it matters not whether the vaccine was administered months ago or even years.

When you start with your desired conclusion, evidence can always be found to support your claim. This approach works particularly well when you choose to blame vaccines, which most, if not all, people will have received at some point or another. Anti-vaxxers are never stingy nor quiet about unscientific theories and arguments that all problems can ultimately be traced back to vaccines.

Of course, nothing boosts momentum like a big dose of hysteria. Why keep your discussions one-to-one when you can benefit from some public mass anxiety? So, the next page in the anti-vaxxer’s playbook always involves publicity. Why should anti-vaxxer lawyers wait for the day in court when they can already start trying their cases in the court of public opinion?

Why shouldn’t the supplement peddlers start selling their mixtures of herbs and vitamins to those seeking to avoid vaccine preventable diseases by advertising ‘natural immune boosters’?

In the 1990s, the original draft of the anti-vaxxer’s playbook was written in the United Kingdom by a now discredited doctor called Andrew Wakefield, and a lawyer named Richard Barr who paid Wakefield to develop a medical report in support of his lawsuit against the manufacturers of the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. Wakefield’s fraudulent report sought to find evidence that MMR was linked to increased levels of autism in children receiving the vaccine. It did not matter that some of the children they studied had already developed autism before receiving the MMR injection,because the publicity for the report stoked such a level of fear and panic amongst the public that the damage had already been done.

Today, we get similar anti-COVID vaccination reactions from individual doctors and isolated cases noisily presented as indisputable proof against vaccines effectiveness, no matter how weak the scientific ground. What really matters is the buzz with its commercial value or the fame it provides. But as my fellow Manila Bulletin columnist Dr. Edsel Salvana wrote, getting vaccinated is about lowering the probability of the virus being a serious case or a fatal blow if we do still contract the virus. Furthermore, it’s still the best option for working together, and creating a solution against this pandemic and the community quarantine, that have already been going on for far too long.