Facebook, fear and fracturing community amid the vaccination debate
The recent outbreaks of measles this past winter in the U.S. and Canada brought the vaccination debate to the forefront once again. On social media forums such as Facebook and Twitter, newsfeeds became a flurry of posts and shares, turning defensive and hurtful on both sides of the debate. This negativity revealed the very ugly side of social media – an environment where it is too easy to carelessly post without considering how these words can impact others.
As articles surfaced, I wondered if fellow Christians were fully reading what they shared or if they recognised how contrary some arguments were to our worldview. Agnostic and self-centered attitudes prevailed in many of these articles. Perspectives that paid little attention to the vulnerable we are called by God to care for, those whom vaccines aim to protect through herd immunity – the ones who are ill, cannot maintain immunity from vaccines or are too young to have received all their vaccinations.
Fears vs. facts
Child vaccinations in Canada begin when a child is two months old, a time when re-adjusting hormones and lack of sleep drive up emotions of fear and uncertainty in many mothers. With all the discourse on social media, parents can be overwhelmed by the conflicting views. Many articles downplay the serious implications of measles or other infectious diseases. They rarely cite peer-reviewed research but play on parental fear, calling vaccines “deadly poisons” that create “sissy immune systems” or cause developmental conditions that have no proven correlation to vaccines.
One prevailing claim is that vaccines cause autism, despite many studies such as the Institute of Medicine’s evidence-based reviews that rejected any causal associations between the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism spectrum disorders in children. The Canadian Paediatric Society observes that “despite anti-vaccine websites being filled with cognitive errors in reasoning, wishful thinking and distortion of reality, the powerful stories of children alleged to have been damaged by vaccines linger in the subconscious and influence parental decision” (cps.ca/impact).
Earlier this spring, mother Tara Hills posted her story called “Learning the Hard Way” explaining how her Ottawa family experienced these subconscious influences firsthand. They chose not to vaccinate because of fear and not knowing who to trust. They didn’t really think that these diseases might affect their family. Then, at the beginning of April, their children fell gravely ill with pertussis, or whooping cough. They rushed to the hospital and were placed under quarantine. Hills wrote, “We were frozen in fear from vaccines, but now we are frozen because of the disease. Right now my family is living the consequences of misinformation and fear. We can’t take it back but we can learn from this and help others.”
If the first place parents would turn to when their child is sick is their doctor or the local emergency room, why then wouldn’t they first ask the advice of medical experts they trust when it comes to vaccinations? These are the professionals they rush to when their child is extremely ill or hurt, pleading for help. Perhaps parents that have not experienced that desperation or witnessed the medical community’s empathetic and rapid response don’t really appreciate the existing, world-class healthcare system we are privileged to have in Canada. I realize that our healthcare system is not perfect, but there are flaws in everything as our world groans under the consequences of sin.
It would be ignorant to dismiss the risks associated with vaccination. Immunize Canada states on their website: “As with any medical procedure, immunization has some risks. Individuals may react differently to vaccines.” There are parents who have very real experiences of adverse reactions from vaccines, but we need to be careful not to direct anger and sorrow inappropriately. While there are rare occurrences of adverse reactions, Canada has a solid vaccine safety and surveillance system (IMPACT) that scrutinizes vaccines with higher safety standard than drugs, a rigorous examination independent of pharmaceutical companies (cps.ca/impact).
In Canada, because of wide-spread immunization, we no longer see the serious implications of highly contagious diseases. As Dr. Gary Chiang, Professor of Biology at Redeemer University College pointed out, “Young parents today don’t have the memory of the 1940’s and ‘50s. The fear of the disease is gone and because of herd immunity, parents are less concerned about these illnesses.”
Pediatrician Dr. Linnelle Veldhouse affirms the importance of vaccines in preventing the spread of infectious diseases: “Herd immunity protects an entire population or community. If enough people in a community are immunized, there is no chance for illness to spread. And even if a few people in the community are not vaccinated, they will be protected because they are surrounded by people who are immune. This is especially important for our infants, who typically get much sicker with illnesses, and who aren’t able to receive some vaccines until a year of age.”
We are not entirely sure what an epidemic of vaccine preventable diseases in the 21st North America would look like, but we do know what happens when vulnerable children become sick. History has shown the devastating effects these infectious diseases can cause, from lasting physical disabilities to the tremendous heartache of losing a child.
Recent outbreaks in areas with very low vaccination rates could have ended differently if it were not for medical intervention and existing herd immunity in the communities that surrounded the outbreak areas. However, if vaccination rates continue to decrease, Canadians will no longer benefit from community protection and the serious consequences of these diseases may be very apparent once again.
Helping others flourish
While Facebook and other forms of social media can be a wonderful way to connect and share with friends, they can also quickly turn into spaces of division, fracturing our communities into places of attack. When issues like these become hurtful attacks within our own Christian communities through social media, I believe the devil delights in the discord.
Too often, we quickly draw lines in the sand and polarize debates, alienating those we care about. We might have opposing viewpoints but still we need to find positive ways to communicate and support each other as Christians. As parents, we want to protect our children but this issue extends beyond our individual families as our decisions have implications for the greater community we are called to care for, especially those who are vulnerable because of poverty or illness.
“When you vaccinate your child, you are not only protecting your child, but you are protecting your community as well. I strongly believe that it is part of our calling as Christians to be protectors of others around us,” stated Dr. Veldhouse.
“We have at our disposal, living in a fallen world, a way to protect ourselves against pestilence and sin,” asserted Dr. Chiang. “We have more resources than we have ever had before. As history shows, humans are the best resources to help humans. God has set it up that way. We, as humans, are very creative and these vaccines have been made to help us. There have been failures along the way but [the vaccines] are overall successful.”
This past month, as I held my six-month old baby and watched as vaccines were injected into her leg, I understood that moment of doubt and fear that many parents experience. But I choose to take the advice of my physicians and God’s provision through modern medicine, as I have learned to greatly rely on both in my journey through motherhood.
Most interesting on how relevant this article is for 2021. Thanks Krista for you writings.