Words by Erin, 24 NSW
The anti-vaccination movement seems to be going through a re-launch. It’s thrown off its old connotations, embraced a friendlier message and is now purporting itself as a ‘pro-choice movement’, for those who want to ask critical questions of science or present a different opinion.
This new language, while attempting to link itself to the completely separate reproductive rights movement, also softens the harsh nature of the old ‘anti-vax’ moniker, allowing the followers of the movement to frame themselves as genuine and open-minded, who are still not quite sold on a tried and tested aspect of our society.
It’s troubling because it sounds somewhat harmless – “I’m not anti-vax, I’m pro-choice”; I just want to do my own research.” Curiosity about the world around us doesn’t seem like a bad thing – and should probably be encouraged.
However, bringing the discourse surrounding vaccinations to a discussion of choice alienates certain groups in society. Not only is it incredibly privileged to claim a ‘pro-choice’ stance, the language is wrought with ableism, or discrimination in favour of able-bodied people.
Because although their image might be changing, their message of ‘truth telling’ isolates people whose lives are affected by medical issues.
Controversial chef and author, Pete Evans, recently shared a cartoon on his Instagram depicting two counters – one labelled ‘masks, gloves, vaccines’, and the other ‘build your immune system with proper diet, proper supplementation, exercise and rest’. A line of people is shown behind the former counter, while the other is devoid of any visitors.
“Someone shared this with [sic] me and said ‘Media and ‘experts’ on one side. Nature and common sense on the other,’” read the caption.
Although it was inherently linked to the current search for a coronavirus vaccine, I couldn’t help but feel alienated, with the post suggesting my decision to medicate for my own disorders and get regular vaccinations to protect my immunity went against both ‘nature and common sense’.
I don’t have a choice; or if I do, it’s a choice between modern medicine or a life of extreme discomfort, aching and tired muscles, and endless frustration that my body won’t work the way it’s supposed to. Despite the undertone of the meme that I could fix my problems with a ‘proper diet, supplements, exercise and rest’, no amount of vegetable intake is going to solve my cerebral palsy and dystonia.
And I’m on the very mild end of the spectrum. I spent my teen years in and out of hospital waiting rooms, sitting alongside people much worse off than me, and usually with much better attitudes. These people were immune-compromised in a way I am not – cerebral palsy often ages the body prematurely, leading to a shortened life span and weakened immunity.
When you’re dealt a certain hand, you don’t have a choice other than to trust your doctors, your ‘experts’, and, in an ideal world, the community around you to protect you with both kindness and, hopefully, herd immunity.
Yet, people with the same message as Evans seem to be having their voices heard. A report by the ABC shows coverage of the anti-vaxxer movement in Australian media was up by 900% in the month of May. As ‘fringe’ as these views once were, I’m suddenly seeing them everywhere.
Undoubtedly, vaccines save lives. According to the World Health Organisation, vaccination is one of the most effective ways to prevent disease, and have allowed us to protect against more than 25 debilitating or life-threatening diseases.
Herd, or community, immunity occurs when a high number of people get immunised, therefore making it more difficult for disease to spread from person to person.
If enough people were to see it as a ‘choice’ to vaccinate, and then choose not to, it would be the immune-compromised – my friends from the waiting room – who would be the most affected. Babies, the elderly, and the sick would also be at greater risk of being the ones taken down if herd immunity was to falter.
I understand that a reluctance to vaccinate yourself, or your child, comes from a place of genuine concern. A lot of people worry about the safety of vaccines, or their own lack of knowledge surrounding the ingredients of a vaccination. However, all of this information has been made readily available by our government, and the Therapeutic Goods Administration, which is part of the Australian Government Department of Health.
You can read about what a certain vaccine contains, and how vaccines are shown to be safe.
And of course, if after all that research, you’re not convinced, then our government has ensured that vaccinations must only be given with valid consent, meaning you can still choose to refrain from vaccinating.
However, when you consider immunity a personal choice, you are leaving behind those who aren’t offered one.
Illustration by Aileen, You can find more of her work on Instagram @aileenetc