Anti-Vac Protesters: The Roots of a Crazyness

The most recent craziness began with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the murdered presidential aspirant, and the actor Robert De Niro, both of whom held a press conference three years ago. The duo offered $100,000 to anyone who could prove the safety of vaccines. Thus opening another page in the long story of anti-vac protesters.

Authors: Judy Bachrach is a prominent author, longtime contributor to Vanity Fair Magazine, and has worked for the Washington Post, Washington Star, and the Philadelphia Inquirer

Richard Seifman is a member of the Technical Review Panel of The Global Fund, former senior World Bank Health Advisor, and U.S. Senior Foreign Service Officer.

At the time the most prominent of these vaccines were those that prevented measles-mumps-rubella, flu, and of course polio. All of these contributed to the health and longevity of millions; none had been proven – or have since proven – widely deleterious, although Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in particular has linked them to a variety of illnesses, including autism. A surprising claim coming from someone who is a respected author and environmental law specialist, president of the Waterkeeper Alliance. 

Despite the safety and efficacy of those life-saving vaccines, the press conference proved an effective double act. By the end of 2019, measles reached their highest annual level in the US — by late spring, there were 1200 cases in the country. Worldwide measles caused 140,000 deaths.

Now that labs of several countries, specifically the UK, China, France, Canada and the US, are working frantically to create yet another miracle vaccine, this one to prevent the often deadly COVID-19, Kennedy and many others – known as the anti-vac protesters – are not just protesting these efforts, but inciting terror in the ignorant and uninformed worldwide. 

The World Health Organization estimates there are probably over 150 vaccine efforts in various stages of development. On 15 July 2020, WHO announced that 75 countries, which would finance the vaccines from their own public finance budgets, are joining 90 lower-income countries in the COVAX Facility, with the aim of ensuring “global, equitable access” to COVID-19 vaccines. 

By the end of 2021, COVAX is expected to deliver two billion doses of safe, effective vaccines that have passed regulatory approval and/or WHO prequalification. These vaccines will be delivered equally to all participating countries, proportional to their populations, prioritizing healthcare workers at first and then expanding to cover 20% of the population of participating countries.  Together, this group of up to 165 countries represents more than 60% of the world’s population. Among the group are representatives from every continent and more than half of the world’s G20 economies.

Scientists have worked feverishly on vaccine development and early results are promising: Moderna, the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based biotech and CanSino Biologics in China were first to share preliminary trial results in May, with more substantive updates provided on July 22. On the same day, the news came out that a vaccine developed by researchers at the University of Oxford and Pfizer, working with the German BioNTech, would get a $1.95 billion order from the U.S. Government. The vaccines are to be provided to Americans free of charge.

What will happen to science, to discovery, to the rest of us if the unproven fears of anti-vac protesters increase in currency?

Resistance to vaccines is an old story, going as far back as 1772 when the Reverend Edmund Massey called vaccines “diabolical operations” in his sermon “The Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation”. His was a religious basis but resistance was not limited to religion, with many objecting for political and legal reasons. The “Anti-Vaccination League” in England was powerful enough to force Parliament to pass an act in 1898 which removed penalties for people not abiding by vaccination laws and allowed parents not to have children vaccinated. 

Anti-Vaccination Society of America advertisement from 1902

It is certainly true that vaccines carry some minimal risk for those afflicted with certain health issues. A broad order-of-magnitude measure is that in most instances about one in a million endure serious harm – and many of those issues get resolved after some time. 

The real problem? The risk of not getting vaccinated is much greater than getting vaccinated.

For instance, in the 1970 and 1980s, some British parents refused vaccination against pertussis in response to a 1974 report of a minuscule number of negative neurological reactions, which resulted in a pertussis outbreak.  

Even worse: a 1998 paper published in The Lancet by a British doctor, Andrew Wakefield falsely made the claim that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine was connected to the development of autism in children. The Lancet retracted the story and its editor declared it “utterly false.” Nonetheless, to this day the original story persists, along with thousands of infants who fall ill because their parents erroneously fear an outbreak of autism in vaccinated children – 2 percent of all US parents to be exact.

 Last year the Kennedy family attacked Robert Kennedy Jr. for his attacks on vaccination – to no avail. 

Indeed, fear of vaccination against the newest deadly virus is on the rise this year, so much so that WHO has listed “vaccine hesitancy” as one of 10 major global threats, with reason. In the US recent polls found as few as 50 percent are committed to receiving a vaccine, with another 25 percent wavering. Among communities of color in the US where people are most at risk, 40 percent fear a vaccine. In France, 26 percent said they would refuse a vaccine.

Unless there is a major effort to alter behavior and significantly increase belief and trust in scientific findings, the entire world is gravely at risk. Anti-vac protesters need to review their beliefs in light of their lethal consequences for others. The best of COVID vaccines cannot wipe out irrational fear and prejudice. Cannot, in other words, wipe out a lethal virus until rational thought and trust prevail.


EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of  In the Cover Photo:  Robert F. Kennedy Jr and Robert De Niro at the National Press Club Conference on Feb 15, 2017, announcing they are offering $100K to anyone able to prove vaccine safety.  Credit: screenshot from Youtube


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