By Elizabeth Duffy, BA in Microbiology, Trinity College, Dublin.
Disclaimer: Please note I am not a medical professional and am not an authority on the issue, I am expressing my own opinions in this article. This is not a substitute for medical advice. For accurate scientific information about vaccines, please visit the WHO website.
Caitlyn Ellis cut off a friend she had since they were two years old.
Why? They had different vaccination stances.
She says about her friend: “She thought Covid was fake and refused to wear a mask. Long story short, she tried to come to visit my three-month-old daughter while being positive for Covid-19, and she didn’t even tell us until the day of. I told her not to bother coming and I haven’t talked to her since.”
Her story is far from the only one…
A more amusing story comes from Katrina….
“I have a friend who literally asked me if I was magnetic now after I got my second shot. I looked them right in their face and said, “You know that’s not true, right?” This is one of my closest friends and we couldn’t be more polar opposite on the vaccine. All of my family are vaccinated and none of hers are. I just give her grace and try to talk to her when she asks me questions. This is a deeply personal choice for a lot of people, and instead of being mean and nasty or berating someone who does not want to be vaccinated, I share truths and facts when she brings it up. It does no-one any good if you can’t keep sharing the benefits. Eventually they will listen. I just hope it’s not too late.”
Further, you`ll find endless webpages, YouTube videos, and advice columns on how to talk to partners, co-workers etc about vaccines. Some have up to hundreds of thousands of views, as well as hundreds of likes, comments and shares.
Why has the subject of vaccines broken lifelong friendships?
Why are we so obsessed with them?
What is it about them?
Why do they fire emotions up so much? It doesn`t matter what age, socioeconomic status, race, or location you live in, you probably have a strong opinion about this issue. Especially if you`re reading this.
That might reflect a difference in values. And therefore, different perceptions of the world. So that might show areas of tension in the friendship/ relationship etc. And although generally vaccines aren`t a ‘make or break’ topic, it can depend on how extremist they are. And if they are, you might have to reconsider whether you want that person in your life. Or, at least, I personally would have to.
2. What are the variables in your own relationship?
Now, of course, there are a lot of variables at play here. And that means there are a lot of questions to ask yourself.
How well do you know the person?
What`s the nature of your relationship with them?
How long have you known them?
Are they a close friend, family member?
These questions really matter; be it when you`re talking about vaccines or any other difficult topic.
It’s very different if they`re a lifelong partner compared to if they’re just someone you`ve known for a few days.
Also, here’s something else a lot of people don’t think about. I didn’t think of it myself, to be honest, but I was watching a video on a different topic. And I think it can really be applied here.
Telling someone you have a different stance than them on day 300 of knowing them vs day 3 of knowing them is different.
One word. Context.
They have context for why you have the views that you do. From that, then, it`s important to think about the nature of your relationship with them before you decide to share this. I’d say the same about any difficult issue. What you can talk about depends on the dynamics of your relationship.
3. How extremist are they?
Now I’m going to mention an element of the problem that most people don’t talk about. However, this is hugely important. How extremist are they in their views? Remember, we’re not talking specifically about whether they are pro-vax, vaccine hesitant, or anti-vax. We’e just talking about when they have different views. Personally, as a graduate of microbiology, I support vaccination. And all major public health interventions.
Generally, I don’t have a problem with people who are hesitant. In fact, one of my best friends is hesitant. And we’ve been friends going on six years now. How does that work, I hear you ask? Well, it’s relatively simple. Neither of us are too extremist towards each other about our views. Sure, we have debates, discussions etc. But respectful. Always. That’ the key thing really. You can’t build a friendship, or indeed any kind of relationship, without respect. So that’s important for not only discussion, but for any kind of relationship, broadly. That’s why, I think, it’s so key here.
4. Which vaccine are you discussing?
Another point I’d mention; which vaccine are you talking about? Because there can be different connotations attached to different vaccines.
First, let’s discuss the one that is most likely to be on people`s minds currently; Covid-19 vaccines.
The HPV vaccine, also, can be a point of contention. It’s been linked with sexual promiscuity in young girls, which actually isn’t supported by studies. Those who have HPV are seen as ‘dirty’. According to an article published on patient.info one in five women would be embarrassed and one in ten would feel ‘dirty’ if they found out they had HPV. Less than a quarter said that they would date someone with HPV. A further survey found that almost half wouldn’t have sex with a HPV-infected person, and just over a fifth wouldn’t kiss a HPV-infected person. Sadly, half said they`d consider ending a relationship with someone who was HPV-infected.
However, these attitudes are at odds with what the research actually shows about HPV.
I wrote a research paper on HPV as an undergraduate microbiologist. Almost every study I read stated that HPV is one of the most common sexually-transmitted diseases worldwide. Almost every sexually active person will contract HPV at least one time in their life. Furthermore, you don`t even have to have full intercourse sex. HPV can be contracted by oral sex, or skin-to-skin contact. Clearly, HPV infection isn’t an indicator of promiscuity. Everyone has it, or will have it. And also, 90 per cent of HPV infections clear within two years.
HPV itself isn’t the issue here. A lack of understanding around how HPV is contracted, however, is. People overestimating the risk to health is also a contributor to the problem.
The MMR vaccine can also be contentious because of the history of it being linked with autism spectrum disorder. There are issues with communication, even with basic tasks sometimes. Of course, the parents of an autistic child want an explanation. Of course, they want empathy. Of course, they want understanding. The last thing they want to hear is that we don`t totally know what causes autism and there is no cure, which is unfortunately the reality. And that’s what anti-MMR vaccine activists like Andrew Wakefield, Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, Robert F Kennedy Jr, and even Robert De Niro capitilise on. Fear. Uncertainty. You don’t actually know what’s going to happen when a child is diagnosed with autism.
5. Have any recent events taken place that might be influencing their decision?
Although there are many factors that cause mistrust in vaccines, specific events often influence it. The three vaccines mentioned above had such events, which serve as excellent examples of how it can happen.
The most recent, and therefore the most obvious, is the Covid-19 pandemic. According to a 2022 study from Harvard Medical School, ‘the severity and prevalence of symptoms of psychological distress, fatigue, brain fog, and other conditions have increased considerably in the United States, including among people who have not been infected with SARS-CoV2’. Further, according to an article published on healthnews.com in April 2023, almost 100,000 U.S. registered nurses quit their jobs during the pandemic due to a combination of stress, burnout and retirement.
Less recent, but certainly no less important, is one you may not have heard of. Especially if you are based outside of Ireland. However, what happened should resonate with people everywhere. Vicky Phelan was diagnosed with cervical cancer in July 2014 at the age of 39. Following an intense treatment regimen, she was given the all-clear. However, it wasn’t until September 2017 that she was informed by her gynaecologist that an audit had been performed and her negative test results had been incorrect. In November 2017, she was given just 12 months to live. Sadly, her case was not unique.
Over 220 other women had a false negative PAP smear test, 162 of whom were not informed about the audit. At least 20 women died due to this lack of transparency, only two of whom were informed of the mistake prior to their death. Like Vicky, many of them were mothers.
This led to a hugely publicised court case. Vicky Phelan became a household name in Ireland when she sued the HSE, and Clinical Pathology Labs Inc. in Austin in Texas over the incorrect result, and the case was settled for a €2.5 million compensation.
Sadly, Vicky died last November 14, 2022, of cervical cancer.
On April 19, 1982, the NBC affiliate WRC aired a documentary that sparked the modern anti-vaccination movement. Vaccine Roulette was written, produced, and presented by reporter Lea Thompson. The documentary opens with Thompson looking directly at the camera in the centre of a newsroom. The camera zooms in on her solemn face. With a gloomy tone she explains that they had done over a year of research and found serious questions about the safety and effectiveness of the ‘P’ (pertussis) portion of the DPT vaccine. The documentary then progresses to tell emotional stories of parents who claimed that their children were vaccine injured.
It was claimed that the pertussis portion of the vaccine caused ‘varying degrees of retardation’. It showed the parents’ emotional faces. It described the sense of loneliness and isolation they felt – dismissed by their community and healthcare providers. This again emphasises the core theme of these movements; trust. While it is absolutely a difficult scenario to be in, no actual evidence is provided that these children`s disabilities were linked to DPT inoculations. Following the documentary, local doctors’ phone lines were saturated with calls from worried parents.
The station received over 2,000 calls from parents, praising the documentary and sharing concerns about their children. In New Mexico, inquiries about the vaccine increased 25 per cent. A group called Dissatisfied Parents Together (now the influential National Vaccine Information Centre) was formed. This changed how American families thought about vaccines forever. By the end of 1982, 17 lawsuits had been filed against vaccine manufacturers. Over the next four years, they filed 41, 73, 219, and 255.
The point is; stressful scenarios really influence how people think. It doesn`t matter whether it’s a global pandemic, a scandal that took place in one country, or a documentary that created fear. The principle applies across the board. Especially if the people affected have been under stress for a long period of time, like we were in lockdown in 2020-2021. People can be pushed to breaking point. Emotions are high, disputes break out, and trust breaks down.
In that kind of environment, it’s not much of a cognitive leap to believing in conspiracy theories.
However, you can`t always know exactly why someone is concerned about vaccines.
And, if you have the kind of relationship where you can just ask?
End of story.
However, many people don`t have that kind of relationship with people in their life
So we rarely know why people are hesitant about vaccines.
However, there are a few trends I’ve noted that might help point you in the right direction
5. Why do people believe false claims about vaccines?
After spending the past two years reading every book I could get my hands on about vaccine hesitancy, a clear theme emerged. Fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of losing control. Fear of being shut out of social groups.
I`ve said this in personal blog posts before, but these are some of our biggest fears as people. Nobody wants to feel isolated. We all want to feel as though we are in control of our lives. How do you achieve that in an extremely uncertain situation, like a pandemic, cervical cancer diagnosis, or anything similar? Well, you listen to the simplest explanation that you hear. Misinformation provides exactly this. A simple, clear explanation. That`s easier to grasp during a stressful time. Scientific language can be ambiguous, and the technical jargon around vaccines ie. adjuvant, viral strains etc, can be difficult to grasp.
Now that`s one aspect of it.
The other is that, well, the truth is difficult to hear.
Avoiding it is much easier.
Why do you think food, tourism, entertainment etc. are such huge industries?
Now of course I’m not saying everyone uses these to avoid reality. I indulge in all these things myself.
I`m saying the fact that they`re such big industries is very telling. I`ve always thought this.
For these reasons, generally no, I wouldn`t avoid someone purely because of their vaccination stance. We shouldn’t make huge assumptions about people based on information we don`t have. But there are a lot of variables between people. And my opinion is that they should be considered before making any big decision about whether or not to continue to have this person in your life, or to engage with them in any way.
- Friendships Are Breaking Up Over Vaccines, Buzzfeed News.
- Why do so many people feel ashamed of their HPV diagnosis? patient.info.
- How former ‘The View’ host Jenny McCarthy became the face of the anti-vaxx movement, insider.com.
- 15 Celebrities Who Have Made Anti-Vax Statements, Buzzfeed News
- We suffer when we can’t face reality, Selfgrowth.com.
- Nobody wants their child to be diagnosed with autism, The Irish Times.
- How to Talk with Covid Vaccine Skeptics. YouTube.
- Pandemic Stress and the Brain, Harvard Medical School.
- Stress, burnout, retirement push 100,000 nurses to quit during pandemic, UPI.com.
- Overcoming: Vicky Phelan’s story of truth and bravery, The Irish Times.
- Woman with terminal cancer gets €2.5m High Court settlement, The Irish Times.
- HSE release statement expressing their ‘deepest apologies to women’ following CervicalCheck scandal, Joe.ie.
- 20 Irish Women Have Reportedly Died Due to the CervicalCheck Scandal, Businesspost.ie.