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Illustration by Ruth Basagoitia

Health and wellness touch each of us differently. This is one person’s story.

The first time I felt ashamed of not being vaccinated, I was a sophomore in college.

While hanging with friends one afternoon, I mentioned I didn’t have most of my vaccines. My friend shot me a look. The tone of his next words stung and left me confused.

“What, so your parents are like religious fanatics?”

We weren’t religious at all. Nor fanatics. I opened my mouth to explain myself, but I didn’t know where to start.

Away from the rest of the world

In the house I grew up in, we didn’t take Advil and we didn’t use lotion — all in an effort to avoid contact with toxic chemicals. We strived to live as naturally as we could.

Many families in our rural community chose not to vaccinate. And we did so because we didn’t trust the authorities who told us we should. We believed modern medicine, along with much of mainstream life, was corrupted by big money.

So we lived in the woods. Sure, the bus ride to school took an hour and 30 minutes, but it felt safer out there. The “real world” was full of unknowns.

Every week or so my mom would do a town trip for groceries and give me a ride home from school. It was great because the car ride was shorter, closer to an hour, but also because I loved getting alone time with my mom.

My mom is a voracious learner. She devours books and will debate any subject with any person, talking with her hands the whole time. She’s one of the most lively people I know.

During one ride home from high school, she explained why my brother and I didn’t receive the bulk of our childhood vaccines. She said vaccines contained all kinds of toxins, and many hadn’t been thoroughly tested. She was especially concerned with mercury. Big Pharma was experimenting on us — and making billions in the process.

A culture of conspiracy theories

A 2018 study found that of the 5,323 people surveyed, those skeptical of vaccines ranked higher in conspiratorial thinking than any other personality trait.

Looking back on my childhood environment, I couldn’t agree more.

In eighth grade, our teacher assigned us “The Mysterious Valley.” The front cover reads, “Astonishing true stories of UFOs, animal mutilation and unexplained phenomena.” We labored over the details of this book for weeks, as if it were a work of literary art.

As a 13-year-old, I didn’t put much thought into why we were taught a book about “true” UFO stories. In my town, we chatted about conspiracy theories the way people do the weather. It was a subject we all had in common.

So the belief that the government knowingly handed out poisonous vaccinations wasn’t much of a stretch from our day to day. In fact, it adhered perfectly to our picture of society and communities outside our town.

Again, I lived in the middle of nowhere. Most of the adults in my life worked construction or the few service jobs available in our town of 350.

My family squeaked by financially, living minimally, not saving a dime. Every day my parents woke up to the same battle: Stay ahead of the bills and make sure the kids have everything they need.

Their economic struggles were alienating and contributed to their worldview. Vaccinations felt like yet another demand from a society that ultimately didn’t have our best interests in mind.

There’s research suggesting feelings of alienation foster conspiratorial thinking. When someone feels they, or the group they belong to, is threatened, they look to outside forces to explain their victimhood.

Believing there’s a network of nefarious forces keeping you down is one way to make sense of a seemingly unjust world. And it was easy for people, like those in my small town, to believe doctors were part of this network.

Like many mothers, my mom shouldered the emotional burden of raising my brother and me. When we did go to the doctor, she was the one who took us. And more than once, she had a doctor dismiss her concerns.

Like the time I got pneumonia.

I was 13 and as sick as I’d ever been. My mom took me into our local clinic and, despite her insistence, the doctor shrugged us off. He sent me home without medication, saying it was a virus that would pass in a couple days.

Over the next 48 hours, I continued to get sicker. My mom slept next to me, sponging me down every few hours to keep me cool. After the second night, she took me to the hospital.

The doctor took one look at me and hooked me up to an IV.

My experience is just one example of a distressing trend in medicine

Research and lived experience show women’s experiences are taken less seriously than men’s. One study found women routinely face disparity in care over men at the hands of the healthcare system, including misdiagnoses, improper and unproven treatments, dismissal, and discrimination.

Other studies also show that although women die more often from heart disease than men, they’re still underrepresented in clinical trials and undertreated.

It’s also common for parents who are skeptical of vaccines to feel unheard and dismissed by their healthcare providers. And just one uncomfortable experience can push people who are on the fence about vaccines to delve deeper into their skepticism.

Kacey C. Ernst, PhD, MPH, is an associate professor and program director of epidemiology at the University of Arizona’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. In her work, she often speaks with parents who have doubts about vaccines.

She remembers a mother whose doctor shut her down when she expressed concerns about vaccinating her child.

“She felt really disrespected,” Ernst says. “So, she changed clinicians to a naturopath. And this naturopath discouraged vaccines.”

One of the issues with vaccines is that people treat medicine as a belief. And consequently, they choose or see doctors as the representatives of the belief.

So, the way a person feels about their doctor (maybe they’re harsh or condescending) informs their overall decision to believe in modern medicine — or switch to a naturopath.

But medicine isn’t a belief. Medicine is the result of science. And science, when done correctly, is based on a systematic methodology of observation and experimentation.

In an Atlantic article about why faith in science is unequitable to faith in religion, Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, writes, “Scientific practices have proven uniquely powerful in revealing the surprising, underlying structure of the world we live in.”

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In reality, there’s no scientific evidence that the trace amounts of mercury in some vaccines cause harm. It’s likely my mom’s concern originated from a 1999 decision by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to remove mercury from all the products they oversaw.

This decision, which only indirectly affected vaccines, supported existing fears that vaccines contained unsafe materials.

As for Big Pharma’s interest in the vaccine market? It’s actually a lot less lucrative than one might think. Some companies actually lose money on their vaccine programs.

“Frankly, vaccines are one of the harder things to engage the pharmaceutical industry in developing because there isn’t as big a profit margin as there are for things like Viagra or a cure for baldness,” Ernst says. “To go from, ‘Oh, we have this compound that might work’ to licensure can take 10 to 15 to 20 years.”

In the end, it didn’t take much to convince me vaccines were safe

I was catching up on reading in my college’s library when I first encountered the term “anti-vaxxer.” The article detailed the myths driving the anti-vaccination movement, along with evidence that debunked each one.

It was my first introduction to the facts.

This article explains how the infamous study by Andrew Wakefield that linked autism to vaccines was quickly discredited due to serious procedural errors. Since then, thousands of studies have failed to replicate his findings. (Despite this, the Wakefield study remains a popular point of reference among vaccine opponents.)

But what struck me most was the author’s larger point: In the history of medicine, few achievements have benefited society more powerfully than vaccines. Thanks to a global vaccine initiative in the 1960s, we eradicated smallpox, a disease that killed a third of the people it infected.

Ironically, the immense success of vaccines has made it easy for some to forget why they were so important to begin with.

The now infamous Disneyland measles outbreak of 2015 infected 125 people, 96 of whom were either unvaccinated or whose vaccination status was undocumented.

“We don’t see as much of [the measles] as we did in the 1950s,” Ernst says. “Without that history and those things confronting us in our face, it’s easier for people to say no to a vaccine.”

The uncomfortable truth — one my own family didn’t acknowledge — is that not vaccinating endangers people’s lives.

In 2010, 10 infants died from whooping cough in California, report state officials. The 9,000 cases that year were the most reported in the state in 60 years. Even more sobering: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates between 12,000 and 56,000 people in the United States die annually from the flu.

Vaccines in the golden age of alternative medicine

It was 2005 when my mom drove me home and talked to me about vaccines. It’s now 2018, and alternative medicine has gone mainstream.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop — an opulent wellness brand built on marketing rather than science — is worth $250 million. While Paltrow’s brand hasn’t taken a stance on vaccines, earlier this year the company settled a $145,000 lawsuit for making unfounded health claims. Their partnership with Conde Nast also dissolved when Goop magazine didn’t pass the fact-check test.

Many alternative medicine practices are harmless. That salt lamp probably isn’t improving your mood, but it isn’t hurting you, either.

But the broader attitude that we can pick and choose the science to believe in is a slippery slope. One that can lead to more consequential decisions that affect more than ourselves, like choosing not to vaccinate.

Ernst admits vaccine skepticism is growing, but she’s hopeful. In her experience, the radical side of the movement — those whose minds are unchangeable — is a vocal minority. She believes the majority of people are reachable.

“You can reach those who are on the fence by providing them with a better basic understanding of how vaccines work,” she says.

“Vaccines help your natural immunity along. By exposing it to a variant of a virus or bacteria that’s weaker than the real thing, your body learns and is better equipped to fight off an infection in real life. Yes, rare adverse effects can occur. But in general, [vaccines] are much safer than getting the disease itself.”

I mentioned to my mom recently that I’d gotten many of the vaccines I missed as a kid. She replied faintly, “Yeah, that was probably a good idea.”

In the moment, I was surprised by her nonchalance. But I think I understand now.

As a mother of young kids, she was inordinately terrified she’d make a decision that would cause my brother and me permanent harm. Because of this, she often developed radical, impassioned opinions.

But we’re adults now. The fears that once clouded her judgement are in the past.


Ginger Rose works on Healthline’s production team. She loves surfing, writing, and breakfast — in that order. Follow more of her work on Medium.