“I was an anti-vaxxer”
I didn’t question vaccines growing up. My three brothers and I received all the routine vaccines and it was never a scary event. I only feared them because it could hurt. The only vaccine I missed was the meningitis vaccine. I was 18 and going to college and chose not to have it because I was afraid of needles. I didn’t even know anti-vaccines existed until I was 25.
When my husband and I started trying to get pregnant in 2014 and it took two years to conceive in 2016. During that time we came across an anti-vaccination documentary series that was about nine hours long and we had decided to watch her. I was sold after that. He said everything under the sun is caused by vaccines. After that, there was no longer any question of having my child vaccinated.
Then, a series of events made me question Western medicine as a whole. I had seen a fertility doctor and tried different treatments that had failed. So I studied natural methods and started a paleo diet called the “autoimmune protocol diet”. In this cycle, I got pregnant. When my daughter was born in 2017, I started to see that there was something wrong with her breathing. I went to see doctor after doctor and begged for a sleep study. I was told I was just an anxious new mom. I finally had a sleep study and it showed that she suffered from severe sleep apnea so she was transferred to intensive care the next morning. This reinforced my distrust of Western medicine.
When my daughter was around 18 months old, I decided to be “brave” and post my take on vaccines on Facebook. He just took off. I didn’t know there was a whole world of anti-vaccines online, so I wasn’t expecting it. I was a member of Larry Cook’s anti-vax Facebook group before it was banned, as well as a number of other anti-vax groups online.
The other anti-vaccines and I started “asking for friends”, and soon we were all over our limit of 5,000 friends. Everything I posted has been shared over and over again like I’m an authority on vaccines when I am not. I was also named by pro-vaxxers as the person to hate. The “dozen of misinformation” are the 12 anti-vaxxers who are not medical experts but have a lot of followers and share 65% of the anti-vaxxer content. My anti-vaccine friends and I would follow them and circulate the content they shared.
In my experience, there were anti-vaccines that were scary. I felt like I fell into this category. I was scared and didn’t want my child to die from a vaccine. Then there were ex-vaxxers who thought something had happened after their child was vaccinated. Whether it’s a day, a month or a year later. They stopped the vaccinations after that. Then you have conspiracy theorists who believe famous people are actually lizards.
We skipped all of my daughter’s routine vaccinations against the advice of our pediatrician. Although we gave her a vitamin K injection. I didn’t know it at the time, but many anti-vaccines are also against the vitamin K shot. Later they blamed my daughter’s health problems to this photo. Looking back, I lived in this fear of things like tetanus all the time, but there was a tetanus vaccine available.
My parents were supportive of me, but my brothers were somewhat embarrassed by me and my extended family was frustrated and felt judged by me. It was right. I would say some pretty harsh things about pro-vaxxers online.
I wore a “measles costume” for Halloween in October 2019 to get some attention. I knew I was going to drive the pro-vaxxers crazy. The confusing part was that dressing up as measles for Halloween would seem like I was afraid of measles. I must have put it in a stupid way, which was, “I was trying to think of the least scary thing I could be for Halloween … So I got measles.” It was extremely stupid and it looks more like chickenpox than measles. I didn’t even do it well.
I thought it would be shared a bit on Facebook, but I woke up the next morning and it was being shared 50 times per minute and ended up on Reddit and all over the news. The following week there was a measles outbreak in Samoa, so the timing was horrible.
In February 2020, I decided to update people online on my beliefs. I said I was still anti-vaccine and hesitant about the vaccine, but I was still studying and would let people know as I went. I also shared that I believed public schools had the right to require vaccines. I felt it was legitimate for anti-vaccines to want a free public school, but they wanted it in their own way. I said I didn’t think we should get rid of all vaccines but that we should make them safer.
Anti-vaccines have lost their minds. They were horrified. I had 8,000 people in my community and they all turned on me in one day. It’s not just online harassment, slurs and threats, it’s losing your entire world and your community. They disowned me en masse. I was called a fake, I was told that I had been planted by the government, that my child was fully immunized, I was called a liar, ab **** and c ** *. I really believe they wanted me to die that day. It freaks me out to think about it.
It was that week that I realized that anti-vaxxers and pro-vaxxers are just people and sometimes people suck. The pro-vaxxers had wished me death too. You can be a tyrant on either side.
In February, I had surgery for endometriosis, and the few anti-vaccines I was still friends with told me I was taking the easy way out and just needed to start eating better. I felt so guilty.
Then COVID-19 hit and those same anti-vaccines that I was always friends with on Facebook were very anti-mask. It added to my feeling that they were absolutely right. They just had to put on a mask. They valued their freedom more than being able to potentially save someone else’s life. I was really disgusted by it.
I started to learn more about vaccines and how unlikely a reaction is. I started to think, “What if I’m wrong? Then I started talking to more doctors and scientists and being welcomed into pro-vaccination online communities. I realized that there are certain facts about vaccines that I cannot get around.
For example, I have seen anti-vaccines talk about dangerous chemicals in vaccines, like formaldehyde. There is no more than 0.02 mg of formaldehyde in any dose of a vaccine. Any average two-month-old baby would already have 1.1 mg of formaldehyde circulating in their body. You cannot get around this fact.
I had friends who passed COVID on to others because they refused to wear a mask. I couldn’t live by hurting someone else. I got my flu shot in January 2021, which I think helped pro-vaccines see I was serious. Then when it came time to get the COVID shot, I took it to protect my daughter who is too young to have it. I received a dose of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on April 16, 2021 and the next day reacted with itching and a migraine. The hospital therefore recommended that I not receive the second injection, as did my allergist and my general practitioner in internal medicine. I was a little disappointed to have a reaction to the first vaccine, but I was not that surprised. I have had several allergic reactions to random things in the past. But, I was disappointed that I couldn’t get my second shot. There have been anti-vaccines that responded to my reaction to the COVID vaccine by saying things like “you reacted and yet you still recommend it?” ” Yes. Because reactions, although rare, do happen. I’m perfectly fine now.
I am about 70 percent protected against the virus. I think it helps people to know that if they can get the full vaccine they should, so they can help people who can’t, like me.
My take on vaccines now is that most children will have a good life if they are vaccinated. My husband and I are working to catch up with my daughter on any vaccines she missed, but my husband is still very hesitant to get the shot, so we have agreed a schedule with his pediatrician. It has affected my relationship with my husband a bit, in that he wants us to be on the same page, and clearly we are not. But it is important that we are on the same with our daughter, which we are.
I was reading screenshots of all the posts I used to post on social media and I’m embarrassed. I considered myself such an authority. I opened new accounts on social networks now I am pro-vaccination. Now I want to finish my degree and I am trying to find what would be best to help defend science. Maybe public health or nursing.
I would now tell anti-vaccines to be careful what they read on the Internet. The morning I was supposed to get the flu shot I wasn’t feeling well, so I canceled it. I started coughing up blood later that day from a reaction to the antibiotics. If I had received my flu shot I would have blamed it on the flu shot and posted it online.
I would also tell anti-vaccines to realize that their actions affect everyone. You may not be hurt by COVID, but the man you meet at the grocery store could end up dying. We have to work together and when you dig into these conspiracy theories they make you feel special, but people don’t turn into lizards. It is not real. Most doctors and scientists are good people.
But I don’t think I regret my past. I think because of the position I was in I can have more of an impact now that I’m a pro-vaxxer. People can look at me and maybe think, “She was such a staunch anti-vaxxer and she’s changed. If she can change, maybe I can change.”
Heather Simpson lives in Texas with her husband and daughter. Formerly anti-vaccination, it is now openly pro-vaccination. You can find out more about her at heatherbrookesimpson.com or follow her on Facebook at Back to the Facts.
All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
As said to Jenny Haward.