The Violent Responses to Immunization Policies and Research

Two weeks ago, California State Senator Richard Pan was attacked on the streets of Sacramento by an anti-vaccine activist. The activist allegedly recorded himself as he waited for Dr. Pan and then harassed Dr. Pan as he walked by on his way to a meeting. The anti-vaccine activist, Austin Bennett, shoved Dr. Pan in the back as Dr. Pan walked away from him. According to KQED:

“Bennett, who challenged Pan in last year’s primary and is working to recall the senator, was shooting a Facebook Live video as he followed down the street — and filmed the moment he pushed Pan in the back.

“Yes, I pushed Richard Pan for lying, laughing at us and for treason,” Bennett admitted on Facebook.

Before the encounter with Pan, the video depicts Bennett strolling in downtown Sacramento, discoursing on a series of topics he says he’s concerned about: CIA “crimes,” including what he called mind control efforts; angel statues on the Capitol Mall he described as preparing the way for the arrival of Lucifer and rule by the Antichrist; how President Trump has committed blasphemy “against the blood of Jesus Christ”; and the use of chemtrails for “mass spraying … to stop the solar radiation” he describes as necessary to human health.

At that point, Bennett sees Pan approaching and exclaims, “What are the chances?” The video shows Bennett badgering Pan with a series of questions. After following the senator for about a minute, Bennett gives him a hard shove from behind.

The push happens about 10 minutes into the video.”

Here is part of the video:

Sadly, this is not the first time that people have been attacked physically or otherwise by those with an anti-vaccine mindset. One of the first documented instances of violence against someone recommending a public health intervention aimed at an infectious disease is the attack on the home of Cotton Mather. Back in 1721, when Boston was going through periodic outbreaks of smallpox, Cotton Mather advocated for the use of variolation. In opposition, someone threw a bomb into Cotton Mather’s home along with a message:

“Cotton Mather, you dog, dam you! I’l inoculate you with this; with a pox to you.”

Later in the 1700s and early 1800s, as Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccine started to be used more and more by the Americans and the British, Dr. Jenner suffered attacks on his reputation. Dr. Jenner would fight back through writing, but so many of the attacks were relentless, including mocking cartoons and editorials against Dr. Jenner.

Earlier this year, anti-vaccine activists showed up at a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). Using personal anecdotes as data, the activists accused the panel members of a myriad of actions, including any and all perceived injuries to their children from vaccination. The atmosphere at the meeting was such that police had to be brought in to guard the committee members from overzealous attendees.

Also this year, a polio vaccination worker was killed in Pakistan as they tried to vaccinate children there. That instance was one of several attacks there recently. According to CNN:

“A string of deadly attacks in Pakistan targeting healthcare workers has sparked fears that the spread of misinformation is fueling a resurgence of violence against those attempting to rid the country of polio.

Attacks were reported on Monday in Bannu, Wednesday in Buner and Thursday in Quetta. One polio vaccination worker and two policemen have been killed.
Public health experts say there is concern that these attacks are exacerbating what is already one of the world’s most intractable public health threats.

Pakistan is one of only three countries to have failed in its bid to stop the transmission of polio, according to the World Health Organization. That is in part due to a historical distrust of foreign healthcare providers, concerns that were inflamed after allegations surfaced that US intelligence officials had used a fake vaccination program in the Pakistani city of Abbottabad as part of efforts to capture Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Islamist militants have attacked and killed those attempting to distribute vaccines since the bin Laden revelation.”

Like with Jenner, some attacks from anti-vaccine activists never get to be physical, but they can be just as hurtful. A mother who lost her child to influenza (a vaccine-preventable disease) was attacked by anti-vaccine activists in a way that can best be described as vile and inhumane. According to CNN:

“On May 6, 2016, Promoli put her toddlers Jude and his twin brother Thomas, down for an afternoon nap in their home. Jude had a low-grade fever, but he was laughing and singing when he went down for his nap.

When his mother went to check on him two hours later, he was dead. Promoli said the next few weeks were “a living hell.”

“Having to go in and plan a funeral and find the ability somehow to even take steps to walk into a funeral home, to make plans and decide whether to bury or cremate your child — it was just all so horrifying,” she said.

When an autopsy came back showing Jude had died of the flu, Promoli started her flu prevention campaign.

That’s when the online attacks began.

Some anti-vaxers told her she’d murdered Jude and made up a story about the flu to cover up her crime. Others said vaccines had killed her son. Some called her the c-word.

The worst ones — the ones that would sometimes make her cry — were the posts that said she was advocating for flu shots so that other children would die from the shots and their parents would be miserable like she was.

“The first time it made me feel really sick because I couldn’t fathom how anybody could even come up with such a terrible claim,” Promoli said. “It caught me off guard in its cruelty. What kind of a person does this?”

Twisted logic that relies on scientific lies doesn’t bother Promoli so much anymore. She’s continued with her flu shot campaign, persuading Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to publicize his flu shot.”

The rest of that CNN article is full of other stories of people who are attacked for advocating for the use of vaccines to prevent infectious disease outbreaks and to protect the lives of children. Those stories are not rare. They have been happening for years, with the threats from anti-vaccine activists ranging from verbal abuse to credible threats requiring law enforcement intervention.

Unlike in the days of Cotton Mather and Edward Jenner, anti-vaccine activists now have megaphones through social media that they didn’t have before. These megaphones also remove them from face-to-face discourse, encouraging them to say some of the most vile things to people who work to save lives of children. While social media companies like Pintrest and Facebook are doing more and more to curb anti-vaccine misinformation, there seems to be little they can do to stop threats and vile language.

There remains to be seen how far anti-vaccine activists push their agenda, and what kind of push back they will see from the general public and the authorities. In a country like the United States in 2019, so polarized and saturated with firearms, we can only hope that cooler heads prevail and that arguments over this cultural issue of vaccination versus no vaccination are non-violent, physically or verbally.

Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/renenajera Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.