I open the email from a Facebook friend who recently told me they were against getting vaccinated for Covid-19, and scan it instead of reading it. It’s long and filled with rabbit-hole arguments and obscure links. Toward the end, it offensively compares vaccine cards with the yellow stars of the Holocaust.
I take a breath and try to remember that perspective, that feeling of being so sure I was right and that almost all of modern science was wrong. I’m often angry at my friend and others like them who refuse to get vaccinated against Covid-19, but then I have to remind myself that I am no better than they are: For several years, I steadfastly refused all childhood vaccinations for my daughter, leaving her unprotected against a dozen or so highly contagious and potentially fatal diseases until second grade.
The difference between me and the Covid-19 anti-vaxxers is that I was lucky enough to be an anti-vaxxer when there was no pandemic. If I keep that perspective in mind, then the quiet outreach I’ve been doing to nudge Covid anti-vaxxers to get the shot can feel like a small form of penance.
I spend part of most days administering a large Facebook forum that facilitates peer-to-peer support for people with type 1 diabetes and their families. For the past two months, I’ve been regularly posting nudges on the forum to encourage people — especially those who are reluctant — to get the Covid-19 vaccine. These posts have been seen by tens of thousands of people. I also posted an open invitation to my Facebook friends to talk to me if they have concerns about the vaccine. My hope is to reach vaccine skeptics before their beliefs solidify, because it can be near impossible to reach them after that point, a lesson I know from hard experience.
I didn’t wake up one day and suddenly distrust childhood immunizations. It happened over time, step by step down a path paved with good intentions until I got to a point where I was so sure that immunizations were dangerous that I was willing to lie to school officials and say I had a religious objection to them.
After graduating from college, I became enamored with living naturally, both for my health and for the health of the planet. I went vegan, drove less, and tried to live simply. I also surrounded myself with friends and news sources that reinforced my belief system in natural living, essentially creating an echo chamber.
The trick with the quest to live naturally is that it’s always possible to find ways to live even more naturally. I began to read sketchy books that took unrelated data points and created pseudoscientific narratives to explain how “clean living” was all that was needed to protect against disease. Each choice I made to live naturally felt like a shield against all harm, enough so that I was shocked when a dentist told me I had cavities.
My daughter was born during the height of the hysteria over a now-debunked theory linking immunizations and a rise in autism. I convinced myself that the best thing for my daughter was not to be vaccinated, employing a kind of bizarro logic to “protect” her against the only thing that would truly protect her from potentially horrific illness.
Once I took such a drastic and dangerous step, I became relatively impervious to doubt. I had the education to understand the scientific method, access to good medical research that proved the vaccines were very safe and effective, and plenty of peer pressure from doctors and family members to vaccinate. Yet I still held fast to my anti-vax beliefs. It was like a religion, and to doubt that vaccines were dangerous was to admit to myself I had made a horrible mistake that put my daughter’s life at risk. The stakes were too high to be wrong.
I wish I could say I had a scientific epiphany, one that could be replicated with other anti-vaxxers, but it was a slow and personal journey sparked by a divorce that caused me to reevaluate every aspect of my life. As I went through this process, I had the good fortune of being supported by people who patiently urged me to reevaluate my stance against vaccines. I was also lucky enough to fall into a job as an editor for several diabetes publications, which taught me about every aspect of the Food and Drug Administration’s process for approving new treatments.
My daughter eventually got her shots, my son was immunized on schedule, and when the Covid-19 vaccine was given emergency authorization, I rushed to get it.
I now try to advocate online for vaccination, especially for the Covid-19 vaccine. It hasn’t always been pleasant. I’ve received messages that tell me to keep my politics out of the diabetes forum, or to do anatomically impossible things to myself.
The first few times I published Facebook posts asking people to get the Covid-19 vaccine, the comments section filled with dozens of anti-vax harangues rife with misinformation. And because Facebook’s algorithm rewards interactions, be they good or bad, those posts were shared by more and more people and inserted by Facebook’s algorithm into more and more feeds. It made me worry I was doing more harm than good.
I’ve recently turned off comments for my vaccine posts, which limits people to choosing emojis for these messages rather than writing their opinions about them. Doing that helped me see that favorable reactions to these pro-Covid-19 vaccine posts vastly outnumber unfavorable ones — they just hadn’t translated into comments before.
And as the Delta outbreak worsens, I’m beginning to get questions from unvaccinated people who are starting to consider getting the vaccine for the first time. They don’t share whether they had been afraid of the vaccine before, or opposed to it, but I suspect some are coming up from air from their own anti-vax journey.
I hope this kind of niche outreach might augment more official efforts to raise the Covid-19 vaccination rate in the U.S., though I know it will reach only a relatively small group. And it won’t likely sway hardened anti-vaxxers, who will have to find their own way back, as I did.
All I and others like me can do is reach those who can be reached, and hope doing that helps protect us from those who can’t.
Craig Idlebrook is an editor for Informa, an administrator of Type 1 Diabetes Support and Information on Facebook, and a freelance writer.