The Vaccination Debate

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I’m sure we’ve all heard of the term ‘anti-vaxxers’, and probably have similar views relating to their incomprehensible mentality. This has largely been brought on by the media’s cultural assumptions, attitudes, values and beliefs when combined with our very own. Anti-vaccination activists, or “anti-vaxxers” are a growing group of people who hold a hesitancy, reluctance or refusal to be vaccinated or have their own children immunised (Ratcliffe & Swait, n.d.). As a result, so too is the outrage against and slandering of parents who choose not to immunise their children and the satirical and insensitive remarks on childhood death. Hi, my name is Jeqeeli, and I am speaking at the annual Shalom Take Action Day today to inform you of how the media solely portrays anti-vaxxers in a derogatory manner, persuading readers to believe that they are reckless and simply idiotic, and that though the abundance of research pertaining to the necessity of vaccines and herd immunity is justifiable, the representation of anti-vaccination activists is both negative and limited.

With a strong lack of diversity of coverage in the media, almost all headlines and relating stories discussing the vaccination debate are derogatory and demeaning to those choosing not to immunise. The NBC News article titled “How anti-vaxxers target grieving moms and turn them into crusaders against vaccines” states that ‘anti-vaccination activists have long targeted their message to parents of autistic kids… [and have] pursued another vulnerable population of parents searching for answers – mothers and fathers of babies who have died unexpectedly…” (Zadrony & Nadi, 2020). The source claims that anti-vaccine advocates seek women who have suffered from the death of their infant, convincing them that vaccines are largely at fault. The popular stereotype forced upon readers that anti-vaxxers ignorantly lack morals puts the onus back on the idea that the minority is unethical, when, in reality, the media sources fail to acknowledge, and instead attack parents for, many of the reasonable explanations as to why people either are unable to obtain safe access to or decide against vaccinations. As displayed in this graph from the Australian Child Health Poll, only a small population of parents with unvaccinated children have voluntarily decided against the service. Approximately only 18% of these parents’ reasons as to why child vaccinations were not up to date was that of preference, and rather factors such as delays due to illness, medical exemptions, catch-up programs, and lack of time (Rhodes, 2017). Of this, the vast majority of parents choosing not to immunise are under the impression that vaccines are closely related to autism and SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome (Weatherspoon, et al., 2016), which has become such a widespread belief following the publication of fraudulent documentation in the media. Andrew Wakefield, a former British physician, altered numerous facts about patients’ medical histories to support his study of 12 child patients that reported a proposed “new syndrome” of regressive autism associated with MMR; the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination (Infectious Diseases in Children, 2011). It is evident that the skewed coverage lacks context. Rather than providing necessary resources as to why both individual and herd immunity is crucial, feature articles, stand-up comedians and ordinary people with a social media presence insult those with differing opinions. In a YouTube video, “If You’re an Anti-Vaxxer, You’re an Idiot”, (of a comedy show) presenter, Russel Howard, who is 40 years old, white, and has no children, repeatedly ridicules anti-vaccination activists, posing the sarcastic question of “why believe expert evidence when it’s something as trivial as your child’s… health?”, as well as agreeing with a Reddit user’s statement that he would “rather be autistic than an idiot” (Howard, 2020). Similarly, featured on the Weekend Today, found on YouTube as “Phil Gould delivers a smackdown for anti-vaxxers”, the guest criticises the small number of NRL players refusing to get a flu shot. Advocating that “this nonsense has gone on [too] far”, he doesn’t “know why we’re giving oxygen to this stupid philosophy” that the “stupid theory” has been “discredited a number of times” (Weekend Today, 2020), the media source displays aggressive bias in the promotion of the online bashing of those with opposing views.

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Cultural assumptions, attitudes, values and beliefs underpin texts and invite audiences to take up positions. By becoming aware of our very own, we can develop the necessary tools to ensure that we are not so quick to judge, to assume and to criticise. When viewing texts published by the media on contentious issues such as the vaccination debate, we, as an audience, should deeply investigate and challenge the sources of distribution, uncovering hidden biases and better comprehending the complexities of the subject, as surface-level knowledge will rarely ever be enough to form a legitimate and educated opinion.

And as for the media, those reporting on the topic need to further develop an understanding of the people in which they criticise, leaving the door open for the harassment of those forced to make a decision for either themselves or their children. Why is there limited discussion of the other side of the issue? Is it just because anti-vaxxers are an easy target? Though the bias may be justifiable, the slander that is brought on by the media is simply unacceptable. Instead of criticism and online bashing, sources such as broadcasting services, news outlets, comedians, bloggers, influencers or ordinary people with a social media presence, should introduce both legitimate facts and a sense of understanding. By stopping the portrayals of anti-vaxxers as monstrous creatures and rather as humans under the wrong impression or with unsafe access to immunisations, hateful stereotypes of minority groups would subside. Online bashing and aggressive bias wouldn’t be so effortlessly accepted within society.

So, the time to act is now. I challenge you, whenever you find yourself next reading texts pertaining to contentious issues within contemporary society, to challenge the media. To consciously make an effort to be understanding, to uncover biases, to research further, and to be sceptical. To not take anything at face value. To take it with a grain of salt. To discover your own opinion. Change starts with us. “Outrage does not guarantee change, or even make it likely. But change won’t happen unless there is outrage”.



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