Should you cut ties with someone based on their vaccination stance?
Caitlyn Ellis cut off a friend she had since they were 2 years old.
A buzzfeed.com article describes why - they had different vaccination stances.
She says about her friend : “She thought COVID was fake and refused to wear a mask. Long story short, she tried to come to visit my 3-month-old daughter while being positive for COVID-19 and she didn't even tell us until the day of. I told her not to bother coming and I haven't talked to her since”.
Her story is far from the only one..
A more amusing story from the same article comes from Katrina....
“I have a friend who literally asked me if I was magnetic now after I got my second shot. I looked them right in their face and said, "You know that's not true, right?" This is one of my closest friends and we couldn't be more polar opposite on the vaccine. All of my family are vaccinated and none of hers are. I just give her grace and try to talk to her when she asks me questions. This is a deeply personal choice for a lot of people, and instead of being mean and nasty or berating someone who does not want to be vaccinated, I share truths and facts when she brings it up. It does no one any good if you can't keep sharing the benefits. Eventually they will listen. I just hope it's not too late.”
Further, you`ll find endless webpages, youtube videos, and advice columns on how to talk to partners, coworkers etc about vaccines. Some have up to hundreds of thousands of views, as well as hundreds of likes, comments and shares.
Why has the subject of vaccines broken lifelong friendships?
Why are we so obsessed with them?
What is it about them?
Why do they fire emotions up so much? It doesn't matter what age, socioeconomic status, race, or location you live in, you probably have a strong opinion about this issue. Especially if you`re reading this.
That might reflect a difference in values, and different perceptions of the world. So that might show areas of tension in the friendship/ relationship etc. Although generally vaccines aren't a make or break topic, it can depend on how extremist they are. If they are, you might have to reconsider whether you want that person in your life. Or, at least, I personally would have to.
Now, of course, there are a lot of variables at play here.That means there are a lot of questions to ask yourself.
How well do you know the person?
What`s the nature of your relationship with them?
How long have you known them?
Are they a close friend, family member?
These questions really matter; be it when you're talking about vaccines or any other difficult topic.
It`s very different if they`re a lifelong partner compared to if, I don`t know, they`re just someone you`ve known for a few days
Also, here's something else a lot of people don`t think about. I didn't think of it myself, to be honest, but I was watching a video on a different topic. I think it can really be applied here.
Telling someone you have a different stance than them on day 300 of knowing them vs day 3 of knowing them is different.
One word. Context.
They have context for why you have the views that you do. So from that, then, it's important to think about the nature of your relationship with them before you decide to share this. I`d say the same about any difficult issue. What you can talk about depends on the dynamics of your relationship.
Now I`m going to mention an element of the problem that most people don`t talk about. However, this is actually hugely important. How extremist are they in their views? Remember, we`re not talking specifically about whether they are provax, vaccine hesitant, or antivax. We`re just talking about when they have different views. Personally, as a graduate of Microbiology, I support vaccination and all major public health interventions.
Another point I'd mention; which vaccine are you talking about? Because there can be different connotations attached to different vaccines.
The HPV vaccine, for example, can be a point of contention. It's been linked with sexual promiscuity in young girls, which actually isn`t supported by studies. Those who have HPV are seen as “dirty”. According to an article published on patient.info, A Jo`s Cervical Cancer Trust survey of over 2000 women found that 1 in 5 would be embarrassed and one in ten dirty if they found out they had HPV. Less than a quarter said that they would date someone with HPV. A further survey found that almost half wouldn't have sex with a HPV-infected person, and just over a fifth wouldn't kiss a HPV-infected person. Sadly, half said they`d consider ending a relationship with someone who was HPV-infected.
However, these attitudes are at odds with what the research actually shows about HPV.
I wrote a research paper on HPV as an undergraduate microbiologist. Almost every study I read states that HPV is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases worldwide. Almost every sexually active person will contract HPV at least one time in their life. Further, you don't even have to have sex. HPV can also be contracted by skin-to-skin contact. Clearly, HPV infection isn`t an indicator of promiscuity. Everyone has it, or will.
HPV itself isn't the issue here. A lack of understanding around how HPV is contracted, however, is. People overestimating the risk to health is also a contributor to the problem.
The MMR vaccine can also be contentious because of the history of it being linked with autism spectrum disorder. As an autistic woman myself, I can understand (to an extent) the struggles that the parents are going through. The struggle with communication, the difficulties with basic tasks sometimes. Of course they want an explanation. Of course they want empathy. Of course they want understanding. The last thing they want to hear is that we don't totally know what causes autism and there is no cure, which is unfortunately the reality. That's what antivaccine activists capitalise on. Fear. Uncertainty. You don't actually know what's going to happen when a child is diagnosed with autism.
Although there are many factors that cause mistrust in vaccines, specific events often influence it. The three vaccines mentioned above had such events, which serve as excellent examples of how it can happen.
The most recent, and therefore the most obvious, is the COVID-19 pandemic. I`ll go into detail about this slightly later in the article, but humans are not rational at the best of times. If you factor in a rapidly changing situation like a global pandemic, people want comfort. Stability. Reassurance that things are going to be alright. That they have control. Science is rapidly changing and uses language that isn`t accessible to everyone. That isn`t comforting. Conspiracy theories provide simplistic explanations that are easy to understand. Which is exactly what people want in a time of crisis. Therefore, a pandemic is the optimal time for these to take hold and spread.
Less recent, but certainly no less important, is one you may not have heard of. Especially if you are based outside of Ireland. However, what happened should resonate with people everywhere. Vicky Phelan was a mother from County Limerick in the west of Ireland. She was diagnosed with cervical cancer in July 2014 at the age of 39. Following an intense treatment regimen, she was given the all-clear. However, it wasn`t until September 2017 that she was informed by her gynaecologist that an audit had been performed and her negative test results had been incorrect. In November 2017, she was given just 12 months to live. Sadly, her case was not unique.
Image by the National Cancer Institute. Image sourced from unsplash.com
This is not the only case where a specific incident sparked controversy around vaccines. On April 19, 1982, the NBC affiliate WRC aired a documentary that sparked the modern anti-vaccination movement. Vaccine Roulette was written, produced, and presented by reporter Lea Thompson. The documentary opens with Lea Thompson looking directly at the camera in the centre of a newsroom. The camera zooms in on a solemn face with a gloomy tone. She explains that they had done over a year of research and found serious questions about the safety and effectiveness of the “P” (pertussis) portion of the DPT vaccine. The documentary then progresses to tell emotional stories of parents who claimed that their children were vaccine injured. It was claimed that the pertussis portion of the vaccine caused “varying degrees of retardation”. It showed parent's emotional faces. It described the sense of loneliness and isolation they felt, dismissed by their community and healthcare providers. This again emphasises the core theme of these movements; trust. While it is absolutely a difficult scenario to be in, no actual evidence is provided that these children's disabilities were linked to DPT vaccinations. Following the documentary, local doctor's phone lines were saturated with calls from worried parents. The station received thousands of calls from parents, praising the documentary and sharing concerns about their children. A group called Dissatisfied Parents together (now the influential National Vaccine Information Centre) was formed. This changed how American families thought about vaccines forever. By the end of 1982, 17 lawsuits had been filed against vaccine manufacturers. Over the next 4 years, they filed 41, 73, 219, and 255.
The point is; stressful scenarios really influence how people think. It doesn't matter whether it's a global pandemic, a scandal that took place in one country, or a documentary that created fear. The principle applies across the board. Especially if the people affected have been under stress for a long period of time, like we were in lockdown in 2020-2021. People can be pushed to breaking point. Emotions are high, disputes break out, and trust breaks down.
In that kind of environment, it's not much of a cognitive leap to believing in conspiracy theories.
However, you can't always know exactly why someone is concerned about vaccines
If you have the kind of relationship where you can just ask?
End of story
However, many people don't have that kind of relationship with people in their life
So we rarely know why people are hesitant about vaccines.
However, there are a few trends I've noted that might help point you in the right direction
After spending the past two years reading every book I could get my hands on about vaccine hesitancy, a clear theme emerged. Fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of losing control. Fear of being shut out of social groups.
I`ve said this in personal blog posts before, but these are some of our biggest fears as people. Nobody wants to feel isolated. We all want to feel as though we are in control of our lives. How do you achieve that in an extremely uncertain situation, like a pandemic, cervical cancer diagnosis, or anything similar? Well, you listen to the simplest explanation that you hear. Misinformation provides exactly this. A simple, clear explanation. Even if it's wrong. That's easier to grasp during a stressful time. Scientific language can be ambiguous, and the technical jargon around vaccines ie. adjuvant, viral strains etc, can be difficult to grasp.
Now that's one aspect of it.
The other is that, well, the truth is difficult to hear.
So avoiding it is much easier
Why do you think food, tourism, entertainment etc. are such huge industries?
Now of course I`m not saying everyone uses these to avoid reality. I indulge in all these things myself.
I`m saying the fact that they`re such big industries is very telling. I`ve always thought this.
So for these reasons, generally no, I wouldn`t avoid someone purely because of their vaccination stance. We shouldn't make huge assumptions about people based on information we don`t have. However there are a lot of variables between people. My opinion is that they should be considered before making any big decision about whether or not to continue to have this person in your life, or to engage with them in any way.
7. Paul Offit; Deadly Choices; How the Antivaccine movement threatens us all
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