Anti-vaxxers do not like to be labeled as anti-vaccine. They see it as an ad hominem attack, though it is rarely meant to be. It is meant to describe what they are: against vaccines. As media attention moves away from legitimizing anti-vaccine sentiment and more toward exposing it as a threat to public health, anti-vaxxers have become more sensitive to being labeled as such.
Some have come up with their own labels. The favorites are “pro-vaccine safety” and “pro-choice.” The second is especially maddening because they want to have a choice over whether or not their children are protected against disease and a choice about whether or not their communities have high enough immunization levels to protect the most vulnerable. It is a choice born of privilege and of ignoring the needs of others.
Some simply dismiss it outright. Lucija Tomljenovic, a biochemist who has published papers promoting anti-vaccine myths, made this comment on a BMJ article:
I am NOT anti vaccine, I am anti bad science.
The reason so many dismiss even the possibility that vaccine can cause
damage is because they believe this to be true. This is religion and not
Of course this is complete nonsense. People who promote the science behind vaccines do so because they have followed the science.
A prime example of the pro-science, pro-vaccine camp looking critically at the science is demonstrated in this article by Tara Haelle discussing a study that dubiously connected the Hib vaccine to leukemia protection:
I couldn’t find evidence of this dramatic reduction in government health statistics.
When I turned to outside experts, I discovered my confusion was justified.
I asked Dr. Walter Orenstein, associate director of the Emory Vaccine Center, if he could help or recommend others. He sent me to Dr. Art Reingold, head of epidemiology at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health, and Dr. Martha Arellano, an oncologist specializing in leukemia at the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. Arellano also suggested I speak with Dr. Edmund Waller, an immunologist and oncologist also at Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute.
Every one of them conveyed the same message: Nothing in this paper proves that the Hib vaccine reduces leukemia risk, much less helps prevent ALL.
Tomljenovic is not alone in eschewing the anti-vaccine label despite evidence that she is. After all, even Dr. Bob says that he “gives vaccines every day,” even though he has aligned himself with the anti-vaccine forces in California.
But the most maddening are those who come right out and claim that they are pro-vaccine. It’s a gambit meant to disarm the other person in a conversations. It looks like this:
I am a pro-vaccine parent who strongly opposes SB 277.
My child, now 20, received all of her childhood vaccines, with my informed consent.
Her pediatrician and I decided together to delay the hepatitis B vaccine until puberty, because it addresses a disease that is spread via needles and sex, and she was at almost no risk of coming in contact with it.
The above quote demonstrates the crux of the argument. Basically, “I must be pro-vaccine because I vaccinated my children. Except for this one bad vaccine. I didn’t do that because [insert various anti-vaccine myths and follow with lots of conspiracy theories.]”
Basically, the Faux Pro-Vaccine Gambit is an introduction, a way of distracting you and throwing you off-balance so that when the anti-vaccine myths follow, you might not know what to do. But it’s possibly the worst gambit out there because the person using it has children who are protected against vaccine-preventable diseases to a degree, but wishes to cast fear, uncertainty, and doubt in order to encourage someone else to leave their children fully unprotected.
It’s the ultimate “I care about my children, and I really don’t give a damn about yours.” And it makes me furious.
It is really dangerous, though, when it is coupled with legislation. Advocates should be aware that people are contacting legislators claiming to be pro-vaccine and against legislation that aims to increase vaccination rates. They are liars, and they are muddying the waters.
So what can you do?
If you are online and encounter a faux-pro-vaxxer, ignore the fact that they claim to be pro-vaccine. Engaging in a discussion about immunization means debunking the misinformation, not taking apart the person. Anyone who promotes incorrect information needs to be corrected, especially in public, so that others are not misled by falsehoods.
If you are contacting a legislator, know that others are claiming to be pro-vaccine. If you are working closely with legislators on the matter, you might prepare them for this gambit. Be aware, however, that letting a legislators know that you are pro-vaccine probably does not mean much to them. Be prepared to use other labels for the anti-vaxxers with legislators such as “opponents to the bill” or “opponents to raising immunization rates.” Then, whether or not they vaccinated their children is an entirely moot point.
And know that whatever people claim, if they follow it up with anti-vaccine misinformation, they are not for vaccines. They are against them. In other words, they are simply anti-vaccine.