The anti-vaxxers come from the cold

The first vaccine is always the most difficult.

Before she took her son to the clinic to get the usual two -month shot, Anita Emly, 34, cried all night. For years, he immersed himself in pseudoscience and anti-vaccine propaganda, full of frightening stories of autism, paralysis and death. Frightened by what she read, she began refusing vaccinations for her children.

Emly gave birth to her son in February 2020, shortly before the coronavirus outbreak began in her hometown of New York. In response to the turmoil around him, he does something strange: he changes his mind.

Growing up in Astoria, Queens, Emly’s family sometimes lacked confidence in doctors. He describes how his father, a first generation immigrant to India, wanted to save medicine in the west for emergencies. “He can laugh, like,‘ Haha, Tylenol, ’” she says, explaining that she prefers to use ginger, onion and herbal teas for everyday complaints.

Emly is a caregiver to many elderly relatives and they are often found to experience unexpected side effects after taking prescription medication. He believes they were not warned by doctors that adverse reactions were possible. As a result he was blinded. “It never informed us that these events could happen,” he said.

When she became pregnant with her oldest daughter in 2016, Emly started reading about vaccines. She sought advice from family and friends, sought alternative medical sources online and read Dr. Robert Sears ’book.

Sears advises readers to follow an “alternative schedule” of just taking a few shots and delaying others – a technique popular in some pseudoscience circles. The controversial pediatrician states that he wasn’t anti-vaccine, but he just put “the same part of the story.” In 2016, the California board of medicine accused him of gross negligence in documenting invalid vaccine releases and, in 2018, he was put on probation.

Emly’s doctor didn’t get along with her when she found out she had turned down the usual hepatitis B vaccine for her newborn daughter-she just told her she needed to get it. “He didn’t listen, he didn’t ask why,” she said. “She wasn’t wrong, but she just didn’t have the best way to bed. And that’s why.” That experience left Emly feeling even more resistant and laid the groundwork for her to completely reject vaccines.

“I was just scared, so helplessness became my choice,” he said.

For people like Emly, every decision to ignore the overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe and effective makes it even more difficult to return to accepted science.

According to vaccine researcher and promoter David Robert Grimes, “It’s hard to leave these communities because they have a social aspect to them, a sense of belonging. If you have people too far away from the rabbit hole, it’s very hard to get out. They have to give up their whole worldview. “

But that’s exactly what some of them did.

Early in 2020, Emly’s family went through a terrible trauma. A close friend died of the flu at just 28 years old. He was not vaccinated. As the coronavirus hit New York, Emly saw that many people in her community had lost their lives. Neighborhood hospitals were filled with explosions, trucks carrying dead bodies standing outside. Meanwhile, on Facebook, anti-vaxxers are starting to campaign against coronavirus bans.

“It really hit the house,” he said. “This is why I ran away from the anti-vax movement.”

Anita Emly with her children at a cafe in New York City in December 2020

Initial skepticism

As of 2008, many anti-vaccine groups have not yet been formed on Facebook. When Lydia Greene’s daughter started crying excessively after receiving her first usual shot, she turned to parents ’message boards, along with the Mothering Forum and the Babycenter.

“He had… what I felt was a frightening reaction,” said Greene, 39, whose last name was changed. When she called the nurse, she was told she was a fast first mother. “I felt naked, kind of dumb, embarrassed and worried.”

Greene, who lives in Alberta, Canada, said the forums “give me answers.” Users mistakenly informed her that her daughter could be suffering from encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain, and that the next shot could kill her. Even if Greene isn’t completely convinced, he’s just stretched enough so he won’t be vaccinated either.

“That’s how I fell. And I stayed there for many years, ”he said. Over the next decade, Greene became increasingly involved in the online anti-vaccine community. Along with about 200,000 more, he joined the Facebook group on the theory of vaccination Larry Cook and followed the influential anti-vaccine activists Sherri Tenpenny and Del Bigtree.

“There’s nothing more important than wanting to protect your child,” she said. “It’s very easy for people to hack that and make a profit.”

Anti-vaccine propaganda online exposed Greene to selected cherry aspects of the study and misinformation. Even though he worked as a chemist with quality control in a pharmacy factory for many years, he began to subscribe to views that Big Pharma was “trying to hide something” about vaccines.


However, it was a broad, global conspiracy theory that ultimately helped Greene dismiss his views. As QAnon activity spread around the world during Donald Trump’s presidency, he began to find even more serious theories in his online groups. Some have linked vaccines to satanism, state schemes and the idea that the earth is flat. Larry Cook just started proclamation that vaccines are part of a “world plan to enslave humanity” and “literally kill the population.” Instead of pushing him further away, this stream of misinformation made him think again.

“It seems like it’s become more ridiculous, and I still have to dig more, and stick to them, or start asking myself questions,” he said.

The most painful hour of counting came when Greene began to doubt the widespread lie that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccines were linked to autism. Popularized by Andrew Wakefield, an embarrassed former doctor from the UK, it is one of the most held beliefs of anti-vaxxers.

Greene describes how Wakefield’s unproven theory blinded him to a reality that was in front of him: that he himself was an autistic son. He is convinced that he cannot possibly have autism, as he has not yet received an MMR shot. His diagnosis helped destroy the worldview he had built for himself and his family.

“I was wrapped up in this movement, I didn’t see my own child,” he said.

For 36-year-old Veronika Fitzgerald-a mother of two based in Perth, Western Australia-a New Age care has paved the way for the anti-vaccine ideology. During his childhood, his father collected books about UFOs, while his mother was interested in mysticism. Fitzgerald was intrigued. As a teenager, he was attracted to the idea that 9/11 was a workaholic and attracted to theories about the lost town of Atlantis.

When she had her first daughter, now seven, she decided on an alternative parenting method, choosing a home delivery with a doula because she was not trusted by the hospital system, doing yoga and belly dance classes to prepare. Then she met a friend who told her she would not vaccinate her child. Fitzgerald began researching the subject and decided not to get vaccinated either.

That judgment alienated her from the groups of her local mothers. “I don’t want to be involved in leadership groups because I feel like I can no longer speak openly. I am always the black sheep that is not vaccinated. ”

As she entered the anti-vaccine community, she became increasingly estranged from other parents, and medical professionals were seen as shocked by her beliefs. Afterwards, a doctor, from India, recounted how children still died of polio in his country. There he began to think again.

“I don’t consider that my decision not to do something can affect someone who is really vulnerable,” he said.

After losing two Slovak family members to Covid-19, Fitzgerald began to withdraw from the event. “The number of times I’ve heard that Covid is just the flu – it really saddens me,” he said. At the same time, doctors, friends, and family members made an effort to explain the importance of vaccines to her. He committed to his brother to help him mend his relationship with accepted science and journalism.

“I also need to know what sources and what media the book is,” he explains.


Slowly, all three women began to inch the fire out of their fears and headed to have their children vaccinated.

Both Emly and Greene have shot shots of the coronavirus, while Fitzgerald plans to take him once he qualifies.

This is not an easy judgment. “It’s almost like leaving a cult, and you’re going to do something your religion trusts for the first time,” Greene said. “You are still thinking in secret, is God watching? Will my soul go to hell? What if I was wrong and I killed my son? ”

“It’s just like degeneration,” said Daniel Jolley, a social psychologist at the University of Northumbria. “People are attracted to conspiracy theories when they feel anxious and powerless. Maybe if we talk about these issues, we can try and incorporate language that doesn’t intimidate or provoke people.”

For Emly, the hardest part was dealing with the fact that she was putting her own child in danger – “that I was really endangering my daughter. I was tearing up right now. That was painful,” she said.

Greene is now running a Facebook group titled “Back to Vax”. With only 35 members, it’s a fraction of the size of the anti-vax supergroups he used to be with, but it provides a valuable community for people from all over the world, all at different stages of their recovery.

“A lot of them have lost their community,” Greene said. “It’s like a breath of fresh air that puts everyone in there and just says, ‘I’ve sinned.’” –

Isobel Cockerell is a Coda Story reporter.

This article was also published from Coda’s story with permission.

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