Are anti-vaccine parents in the grip of mass hysteria?

Welcome to Salem road sign illustration, with distressed foreboding background

Vaccination is one the greatest public health advances of all time.

It has saved, and continues to save, literally millions of lives each year, yet many well meaning parents have become convinced that vaccines are harmful and there is no amount of scientific evidence that can convince them otherwise.

As Rachel Burke reports in The Olympian, We’re hard-wired not to change our minds:

Vaccine injuries are the demonic possession of our own time.

The clearest example may be [the] work around the popularly held belief that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine is linked to autism, a claim made by a single, long-discredited study. Nyhan, Riefler, and their research partners surveyed over 2,000 parents; most received one of the following: (1) materials from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) correcting the falsehood; (2) a pamphlet describing the dangers of measles, mumps, and rubella; (3) pictures of children who have these illnesses; or (4) a mother’s firsthand story about how her baby almost died from measles. A control group received no materials.

The results: None of these approaches made parents who were opposed to vaccines more likely to vaccinate their kids… (my emphasis)

Why are anti-vax parents evidence resistant?

Nyhan and Riefler speculate that “we’re even more inclined to hold on to a false belief if it threatens our sense of self.”

There’s no doubt that ego is a large part of anti-vax belief. As I’ve written before, anti-vaccine parents view themselves as smarter than others. They see their combination of self-education and defiance of authority as an empowering form of rugged individualism, marking out their own superiority from those pathetic “sheeple” who aren’t self-educated and who follow authority. Psychologically, they cannot tolerate the reality that they are both ignorant and gullible.

But fear of vaccines is hardly new. It’s been around for 200 years, nearly as long as vaccines themselves. Anti-vax advocates has amassed a perfect record; they’ve never been right even once!

Why, in the face of the scientific evidence of vaccines’ safety and efficacy and the historical evidence that anti-vaxxers have never been right about anything, do anti-vaxxers cling so desperately to their beliefs?

Perhaps it is a form of mass hysteria.

According to Wikipedia:

… [M]ass hysteria … is a phenomenon that transmits collective delusions of threats, whether real or imaginary, through a population in society as a result of rumors and fear…

A common type of mass hysteria occurs when a group of people believe they are suffering from a similar disease or ailment, sometimes referred to as mass psychogenic illness or epidemic hysteria.

Fear of vaccines is a collective delusion transmitted through a population as a result of rumor and fear. Yet there’s no doubt that those in the grip of anti-vax hysteria fervently believe that children, including their children, have been harmed by vaccines.

But there was no doubt in the minds of the citizens of 1690’s Salem, Massachusetts that members of their communities were being harmed by demonic possession. Just like contemporary anti-vaccine parents who fervently believe in vaccine injuries, not merely in theory, but in practice in their own children, Salem resident fervently believed in demonic possession, not merely in theory, but in practice in their own neighbors.

Adolescent girls … began to have fits that were described by a minister as “beyond the power of Epileptic Fits or natural disease to effect.” The events resulted in the Salem witch trials, a series of hearings and executions of 25 citizens of Salem and nearby towns accused of witchcraft. The episode is one of America’s most notorious cases of mass hysteria, and has been used in political rhetoric and popular literature as a vivid cautionary tale about the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations and lapses in due process.

There’s no such thing as demonic possession and there never was, so why were Salem residents so sure they were witnessing it?

  1. Someone had a “fit.” That really happened.
  2. It was interpreted in light of religious beliefs and irrational fears.
  3. Other people also had “fits.” They and those around them were not making it up; they fervently believed it had happened.
  4. The population was gripped by the collective delusion of a threat and transmitted that fear through rumor, aided and abetted by those who stood to benefit from convincing others demonic possession was real.

Sound familiar? It should. It bears a striking resemblance to anti-vaccine advocacy.

  1. Someone had a bad reaction after vaccination. That really happened.
  2. It was interpreted in light of scientific ignorance and irrational fears about vaccines.
  3. Other people also had “bad reactions.” They and those around them were not making it up; they fervently believed it had happened.
  4. The population was gripped by the collective delusion of a threat and transmitted that fear through rumor, aided and abetted by those who stand to benefit from convincing others that vaccines injuries are real.

The key point, which cannot be overemphasized, is that many anti-vaxxers honestly believe that they have witnessed the evidence with their own eyes and they aren’t lying. But then the Salem residents who feared demonic possession also believed they had witnessed the evidence with their own eyes and they weren’t lying, either.

That’s why anti-vaxxers are evidence resistant. It’s not merely that they can’t understand the evidence because they lack scientific knowledge; it’s not merely that view themselves as “educated,” “empowered” and transgressive. It’s that they are in the grip of mass hysteria.

Vaccine injuries are the demonic possession of our own time. They are a collective delusion, fueled by fear and rumor, fanned by those who stand to benefit from the delusion.

  • Platos_Redhaired_Stepchild

    Anti-vaxx seems very popular with the upper middle / upper class. Vaccines prevent expensive doctor visits and hospitalizations. Being anti-vaxx is subtley bragging you don’t have to worry about preventing disease like a poor person. You have insurance so if you fall ill you can go to the hospital (no expense spared) and be cured. Same deal with quacky food supplements and “organic” diets: it signals that you, the perfect sanctimommy, have the money to buy that shit and/or be a SAHM.

  • BeatriceC

    I got a TDaP shot yesterday. My arm hurts. Am I vaccine injured?

    • Sue

      Good to see a healthy immune response – suggests you will sero-convert effectively 🙂

      • BeatriceC

        I get the TDaP more often than recommended because the pertussis part is tricky and my oldest kid is a non-seroconverter. He’s had no detectable antibodies to pertussis just a month after having the disease itself. It’s awful. I’d rather over vaccinate and protect him than under vaccinate.

        Over the last week my macaw, who’s a rescue and still lashes out from time to time, and well as has bad balance (missing wing) causing her to use her beak to steady herself, has bitten me three times. Once took a huge chunk out of my hand, the other two didn’t break the skin, but combined to pinch a nerve. Since there was a reason to get it, and it’s been 2.5 years since my last one, I got it again.

      • guest

        When I got my last TDaP booster, it hurt like a mother f****r.

    • Wren

      Yes. Yes you are.

      Expect autism, asthma and Alzheimer’s to all hit soon. Soon means any time between yesterday and death.

      • DizzyD960

        And that’s just the “a” injuries. You will experience several from each letter of the alphabet as the day progresses.

  • Fleur

    It’s an interesting point. I’ve often thought that a certain type of antivaxxer speaks about autism in a way that makes it sound a lot like demonic possession. Autism is assumed to be something that takes over a “normal” child but which can be cast out with the right combination of diet, supplements and cleansing, restoring the “real” child who has just been trapped inside. In reality, I’ve never talked to anyone with autism who didn’t see their autism as being an integral part of the real them, not something separate.

    • Sue

      I suspect it might be the other way around, Fleur – those parents who are already highly stressed by their kids’ behavioural or developmental issues are more vulnerable to falling into the arms of the anti-vaxers.

      Those who appreciate their kids’ different perceptions and emotional make-up are less likely to seek out an external locus of “blame” – they see their kids as different rather than “damaged”.

    • Poogles

      Or the “changeling” stories of the past:

      “Fairytales from the British Isles, Germany, and Scandinavia include stories about changelings. They describe a child who exhibits remarkable and sudden changes in behaviour and/or appearance, explaining that supernatural folk steal normal children and replace them with one of their own, or some other substitute. The new child—the changeling—is characterised by unresponsiveness, resistance to physical affection, obstreperousness, inability to express emotion, and unexplained crying and physical changes such as rigidity and deformity. Some are unable to speak. ”

      http://adc.bmj.com/content/90/3/271.full

  • demodocus

    Anti-vaxxers are much, much smarterer than me. After all, they seem quite sure we’re all paid minions, but I’ve yet to see a single paycheck!

  • sdsures

    What are these so-called “vaccine injuries”? Are we talking anaphylaxis?

    • Sean Jungian

      From what I can tell from my Facebook feeds, most of the vaccine injury they see in other kids is a “dullness of the eyes, lack of spirit”.

      AFAIK they still blame autism, a host of speculative food allergies, and “damaged gut” (whatever that is) as all being vaccine injuries.

      • Amy

        Or eating too much Food-Babe-Disparaged food.

        • But ingestion is not injection! Snnnrk!

      • I’ve seen eye colour changes being listed as a vaccine injury.

    • Michael McCarthy

      “What are these so-called “vaccine injuries”?”
      Pick something, anything. If it is listed on the vaccine insert, that is a vaccine injury (which includes in one instance, falling down a well).

      • sdsures

        LOL

      • namaste863

        I hope Lassie came to the rescue.

        • Michael McCarthy

          Niiiice! 😉

        • Roadstergal

          “What’s that, girl? Timmy has no immunological memory of many currently circulating infectious diseases?”

    • Azuran

      Everything is a vaccine injury to those nutjobs
      Your baby is crying? vaccine injury. It’s a quiet baby? Vaccine injury
      Any kind of skin disease
      Any kind of respiratory disease
      Basically any disease any child ever gets
      Any delay in any part of development
      ‘dull eyes’ whatever that means
      SIDS
      And even shaken baby syndrome

      Oh, and if their kids get a VPD, it’s because a vaccinated child shed the virus on their snowflakes.

      • Kelly

        I think mine is vaccine injured. She keeps shaking her head and acting like a banshee right after her vaccinations. I think they made her hyperactive.

  • Therese

    It could also be that when someone has spent hours and hours looking at anti-vax websites, a simple brochure or a few pictures isn’t going to be enough to change their minds. I think we need a documentary that specifically debunks all their favorite arguments and shows how dangerous antivax is. I know there are documentaries out there, like the NOVA one, but I don’t think that debunks specific arguments. For the people that are completely brain washed nothing will help, but I think a well done documentary could persuade many of the fence sitters and vaccine skeptical. I think it’s partly the documentaries that the natural birth and antivax crowd have created that have allowed them to become so popular and we need something equivalent on our side.

    • swbarnes2

      I wonder if some kind of primer before presenting the evidence, something like messages that “good parents are willing to admit they were wrong when the evidence is in front of them” or “good parents would rather admit they made a mistake, and fix it, instead of pretending everything is fine when it’s clearly not” would help.

      • I wonder about the idea of having a group where we require nothing more of them than to sit and listen to a bunch of anti-vaxxers being given the figurative smackdown. This is the closest meatspace equivalent I can think of to smacking anti-vaxxers down for the lurkers.

  • Mel

    An interesting hypothesis I read in a well-researched book about the Salem Witch Trials posits that many of the accusers were suffering from what we would diagnose with PTSD. Several of the leading accusers in the trials were orphans and/or refugees from the Maine border wars and had seen people on both sides tortured and killed. The “visions” they saw of being threatened and injured by demons match up with accounts of atrocities committed on both sides in areas that the young women were known to have lived.

    There’s a lot of take-away wisdom from the Salem Witch Trials, but the one that I think matches best here is that people need to be very, very careful who they take information from.

    • Stephanie Rotherham

      Huh, interesting. Wasn’t there a theory about mouldy rye causing hallucinations, too?

      • jaia

        Yes, and that accounts for many of the witch hunts in Europe.

  • namaste863

    I personally like the explanation for the Salem Witch Trials that Arthur Miller gave in The Crucible, that the girls agreed to say and act like they’d been posessed as a cover story to hide behaviors that they’d participated in that would have gotten them into quite a lot of trouble. Another explanation is that there was some odd fungal spore that grew on the Rye crops that year that is closely akin to LSD.

    • Mel

      Alas, the fungal spore hypotheses have been solidly disproved. The symptoms were confined to almost entirely to females between the ages of 12-25 who were unmarried. There was no grain-based food that was only eaten by those young women or was eaten in larger quantities by that age and gender group.

      • sdsures

        Is there a different theory about what happened to them? (People can and do still get ergot poisoning these days.)

        • MaineJen

          I have always pictured it as starting out as a game (the original “afflicted” girls were 9 and 11 years old); it must have been fun and oddly empowering to have such power over their elders, especially in a society where girls and women had no real power. Then the game got out of hand, authorities got involved, people started dying, it was too late to turn back, so the girls had to keep it going or they would be in trouble too.

          • Roadstergal

            The ‘cottingly fairies’ syndrome?

        • Mel

          Many of the leaders – the girls who had the most detailed visions and the ones who actively accused people beyond the first three “social outcasts” – were orphans/refugees from the Maine border lands which had been under attacks from French/Native Americans with counter-attacks from British/American colonists. They had seen some horrific atrocities including torture of captives by both sides. Others had seen or had most of their family killed in attacks that they survived.

          Nowadays, we’d think of PTSD – flashbacks, disrupted functioning in daily life etc. Back then, they labeled it demonic possession. To me, the “aha” moment was when the author connected specific tortures that were documented by survivors like having pieces of skin ripped off and being burnt alive and how surprisingly similar these were to things the young women were seeing like having birds/demons rip skin off them and seeing people or themselves being roasted on a spit.

          There’s an entire book on it; I cannot reach my Amazon account right now or else I’d give you the author and title.

          • Roadstergal

            I’d be very interested to hear – I want to read that book!

          • Michael McCarthy

            I believe it is called “In The Devil’s Snare” by Mary Beth Norton.
            http://www.nytimes.com/2002/11/03/books/the-red-scare.html

          • Sean Jungian

            looks really fascinating, thank you!

          • Michael McCarthy

            NP. Someone I know recommended it to me a while ago, never got around to reading it myself. Maybe one day.

          • Roadstergal

            Thanks for the link!

          • Sean Jungian

            I’d like to read it as well, please post the info when a and if you get an opportunity!

          • sdsures

            Interesting!

        • Clorinda

          There is evidence that congregational grudges, economic jealousy, and fear of what happened during the border attacks all played a part.

          http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/salem/SAL_ACCT.HTM

      • Roadstergal

        I have my own pet theory, which is based around the demographics you mention and seeing some of the Pentecostal speaking-in-tongues sorts – young women thrashing and moaning on the ground. When your religion doesn’t allow you sexual release, all of that has to come out somehow.

        It’s not true, of course, but part of me thinks there’s at least a little part…

      • Amy

        Me too! I remember learning about that in AP History in high school and thinking it was really interesting.

      • Sue

        Slightly OT but related: apparently the young women who comprised the Oracle of Delphi were constantly high on nitrous oxide (laughing gas) that was naturally present in the undergrownd caves where they were kept.

        The (male) priests would ask the seekers for questions, the off-their-faces young women would rant some incoherent words, and the priests would tell the seekers what they wanted to hear, and pocket the coin.

        (Disclaimer – this is what the tour guide told us when I visited Delphi – could be a myth, but it’s a good one).

        • Stephanie Rotherham

          I really want that to be true.

        • demodocus

          National geographic had an article on it several years ago, saying that the women were off their nuts on naturally occuring gases, though which I don’t recall.

      • Michael McCarthy

        But maybe they got a hold of some magic mushrooms or were eating jimson weed berries. (the effects of the latter fit more closely)

    • sdsures

      Ergot, not LSD. But it produces some similar effects to LSD, namely hallucinations and convulsions. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ergotism

      LSD is present in the seeds of the morning glory flower.

    • MB

      It was a decent explanation, and not all that implausible. But Arthur Miller left those girls out to hang, literally and metaphorically. There was no effort on his part to defend them as fighting for their lives. Had they been found out as having participated in the behaviors they had been (chicken blood nonsense, dancing naked in the moonlight, what have you — you know…normal puritanical teenage shit) there would have been serious repercussions. What repercussions? I suppose we’ll never know. But, serious enough for them to sacrifice others to save themselves. What should have been on trial was the Puritanical hypocrisies, but instead it was a bunch of silly teenage girls, who never got their chance to truly “speak” to the audience.

  • Dinolindor

    I wonder if instead of CDC materials parents were given something that was credited to a source with a name that riffs on Natural News or similar. I would bet that a significant portion of the parents who dug in their heels disregarded the messenger, not so much the message.