a former anti-vaxxer’s guide to reaching vaccine hesitant folks

When people imagine the types of people that would be hesitant or outright against vaccinations in general, they seem to have a picture in mind.  

Usually they picture a mom, a “Karen” if you will, who is all about the non-GMO, organic, no chemicals sort of existence for their kids. They picture someone entirely anti science and educating themselves by Dr. Google about the dangers of vaccines. They picture someone taunting rhetoric about how it causes autism, and how kids are sicker because of the chemicals and Big Pharma.

This stereotype character is the target of shame and venomous sentiments to remind everyone that this character should be shunned from society. They say that any child isn’t fully vaccinated should be out of the public school system. This character of a person is sad excuse of a parent and if they had done their research, they would know there is One True Way. If you didn’t believe the science, you were a heretic.

I don’t think it should come to any surprise that this approach does not turn minds and hearts. Using shameful attacks doesn’t somehow bring people to the light. I can say this, because , up until early 2020, I was, in one regard, part of the group in question. The one that they thought was ignorant, selfish, stupid, and anti science. I was a parent who regarded vaccinations with unease and unrest.

Granted, at this point in my journey,  I fell somewhere in between anti vaccine and pro vaccine, and to that end, that meant feeling unwelcome on either side. I was not firm enough that vaccines were entirely horrible and not a proponent enough to satisfy to steadfast pro side. My kids weren’t unvaccinated (they had some as babies), but not vaccinated enough by public health requirements for schooling. They required an exemption to attend school.

This is why I saw myself as vaccine hesitant, and this group of people is far larger then society realizes. I believe this is largely in part of we are too scared to speak up. We all have stories that may have a common origin – it wasn’t entirely the convincing done by the anti-vaccination movement that got us here but rather the dismissiveness of the medical community when you even dared ask questions that added fuel.

It wasn’t Jenny McCarthy, fear of autism, Big Pharma that was the smoking gun that led us down a different path.

It was fear. Fear of screwing up as a parent and wanting to make sure we didn’t misstep. For some, it leads you down one path, for others you end up going another way.

I’m not anti science at all. I love science – I love the wonderment, the constant state of questioning and thinking, and re-thinking. That’s what I believe is at the heart of it.  I wasn’t anti vaccine prior to my first born but I wasn’t pro vaccine by my the time my other child came along 2 years later. It was 2 years of experiences and rabbit holes that ended up leading a journey of vaccine hesitancy.  

Consider the messaging – look at the research and the data and learn!  Ask questions. Talk to your doctor. Yet, when you do, you are brushed aside, shown irritation that you are even asking these types of questions. In my case, my doctor answered my concerns with just a blanket statement that it was just reckless not to vaccinate.

So off you go to do your own research – and depending what rabbit holes you encounter, you may come across compelling articles from even medical professionals themselves who are adding their voices to the anti-vaccine movement.  It’s easy at this point, to feel lost.  

The last straw for me was when I was pregnant in 2010 and was aggressively told by my doctor that I should get the H1N1 vaccine. One that was not tested on young children and pregnant women. My concerns were again, dismissed.  

A close friend also had an adverse reaction with one of her children to initial vaccines so I just felt so scared that that could be one of my own kids. What if, that was one of mine?  Like I said, the fear of messing up as a parent is big. There are conflicting evidence everywhere and people all seem to have the “right” answer. This is just another notch.

Full transparency – I was I hard core at first. I went down the rabbit hole big and considered non-GMO, making everything organic with no chemicals and was on Google/YouTube a lot.  I resembled to some degree, that stereotypical anti-vaxxer.

My ex husband was on board with this too but I think he was in the same boat as me. Just scared.

Over the years, it started to wane in intensity, and I came to exist more into the grey space I have referred to as “vaccine hesitancy”. I came to find out how many people navigated this space and how we just felt…..lost. Unsure. Unwelcome all around.

It took 2020 to change all that with a pandemic and the love and trust of a partner, who would shift the path that had taken years to cultivate.

In the end of February 2020, I had my folks over and my partner whom I had been dating for a few months at this point. He was a doctor and I had yet to tell him about my thoughts about vaccines. Admittedly I was terrified.  What if he had the same thoughts as the other doctors? What if he thought my fears and questions were silly?

The pandemic was just in it’s infancy and my mom had made a slip about my position on vaccines and since I thought he picked up on that, I figured now was the time.

That night, over dinner, we talked for hours. I had the privilege that I hadn’t had years ago – trust, privilege and care. He listened without judgement, validated the fearful feelings, addressed the questions and brought perspective. You see, numbers and data aren’t always enough. Putting them in perspective in such a way that it clicked struck the needed chord for me.

Trust. That’s the elixir. That’s the magic to will have people reconsider.

If people don’t trust you, they won’t open up. Everything you say won’t hit its mark at all.

Since then , I felt that hesitancy fall away. When the COVID vaccine comes my way, I’ll be up for it and I’m glad that I had the opportunity to be heard and understood instead of being attacked and shamed. That’s what changed for me.

If you want to reach a vaccine hesitant person and/or cultivate a presence that feels safe for vaccine hesitant people to reconsider, here are some suggestions that I know worked/would have worked for me:

  • Stop the public shaming of anti-vax views
    You are alienating vaccine hesitant people and adding fuel to staunch anti-vax proponents who will use that to their advantage. Instead, offer perspective, hope, time, and patience. Check out this thread for an example:

  • Reinforcing stereotypes doesn’t work
    In  conjunction with shaming,  end the stereotyping of anti-vax folk. People are not anti science if they question and have concerns. This judgement will close people off.  Remove what you think constitutes people who are mostly likely not going to get vaccines. It is far more diverse than you realize.
  • Don’t be afraid to be inclusive with risk of both the vaccine and the disease.  
    I think a lot of medical care professionals are scared that if you even mention risk with vaccines, you will turn people off from getting them.  I can tell you first hand , that that’s not always true and it is far more dangerous to ignore the presence of risk or making it seem that there is no risk at all.  Like any other medical decision, it’s beneficial to know that there is risk. You don’t need to know every single possibility , of course, but some coverage would be beneficial.

    For example, I was aware of Guillain-Barre syndrome was a possible risk in some vaccines but my partner also made me aware that the risk of that was higher if you got the disease itself. That is worthwhile knowledge.

    You see, we don’t see a lot of these diseases much anymore and we heard the stories of our parents who have gone through the usual childhood diseases and came out fine. So for a great deal many hesitant people, they think:

    “Well, my parents had that and now have lifetime immunity with know ill effects so what’s the big deal?”  

    Don’t brush these questions aside. There is risk, like anything else in medicine, but it’s putting in perspective what the greater risk is.  Talk about what common reactions look like, and what it is happening in the body when this happens. Talk about what things to look for in case there is an allergic reaction.  
  • Be mindful of personal and systemic history
    Some people have had very adverse relationships with doctors that have violated trust or medical professionals that have just ignored their patients. There are people of colour and Indigenous folks that have suffered at the hands of medicine and science and are legitimately wary.  

    Experiences shape us.

    Meet people where they are, understand their past and their history and come to them with that in mind.

    For example, with the new COVID vaccine, talk about the trials and the studies. Look through their lens and cultivate a perspective with that mind. What types of ethnic groups were included in the trials? What were the adverse effects through these groups, etc.
  • Know when to let go
    Not everyone will be convinced but do not change tactics. Do not suddenly become hostile towards them, or others because you did all this and someone did not change course.  Be steadfast with patience and building foundations of trust.

  • Be supportive when even a small change happens
    For many of us who were on this path, it didn’t happen overnight and changing course won’t happen overnight either. People may just want to start slowly. If they/their children need quite the catch up, let them do it on their own terms without judgment.

    Someone may decide that there are still a few they aren’t entirely comfortable with getting yet. In my case, that’s the HPV shot. For others maybe it’s the chicken pox, or hepatitis, or even the flu shot.

    If someone was vaccine hesitant before and is reconsidering, stand behind them because moving forward is still moving forward. “All or nothing” approach would just end up pushing people away whom you have built this trust with.

  • Advice for medical professionals
    I am lucky that I have a partner who is patient, caring, trusting as both a partner and a doctor. Sadly, not everyone has that opportunity.

    Doctors – I can appreciate that you don’t always have the time to have an hours long conversation with your patients about this. I know how the system is.

    At the same time, people may feel more welcome elsewhere where their concerns will be reinforced to match a different perspective. I suspect you don’t want that.

    So, even if you can’t answer all the questions right then and there, at least let them know that you get it. You understand. Don’t push them, be aggressive or shame. If they need time think, support them. That’s a great time to maybe provide material or encourage community resources that go to the root of fears.

    I know you believe on what vaccines can do and the benefits they have. I also know dismissivness and pushiness will only serve to possibly drive those away that may be on the fence. Approach those situations with a bit more care and I assure you, that you may see more people be less hesitant.

In summary, the next time you promote hateful and shame inducing messages against anti-vaccination folks, please consider that it’s not doing the good you think it does.  I’m sure it feels nice to roast them and poke fun, but let’s be realistic……those who are deeply rooted will not change course and those on the fence are not going to fall on your side because of it.

Forcing people into your way of thinking will only backfire therefore, instead make a foundation that people feel open enough to reconsider. There are a lot of people you can reach out there with just a different approach. From this pro-vax turned anti-vax turned vaccine hesitant turned vaccine supportive, I know that this can work.  It’s worth a shot. 😉   

One Comment on “a former anti-vaxxer’s guide to reaching vaccine hesitant folks

  1. I have vaccine hesitant folks. One of them, with the black and white element of being Catholic (almost all vaccines do not meet prolife requirements). Thanks for writing this. I think your piece is really, really important.


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