In October, we told you the news that an anti-vaccine activist threw a menstrual cup filled with blood at legislators in California during a debate on a bill to restrict vaccine exemptions. Throughout history, varying levels of violence have accompanied immunization policy debates and programs. In the early 1700s, Cottom Mather — a minister who advocated for smallpox variolation in Massachusetts — had his house firebombed by those who thought he was spreading disease rather than preventing it. Just one week ago (December 2019), healthcare providers and health workers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were violently attacked while responding to an epidemic of Ebola in the region, a response that includes the new Ebola vaccines.
Similar attacks have been launched against polio vaccine brigades in Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent years. The two countries in particular, and the area where they are located in general, have been in armed conflict for quite some time. About a decade ago, the Central Intelligence Agency coordinated with some healthcare workers in Pakistan to obtain DNA evidence that would help them track down Osama Bin Laden. Since then, many people in Pakistan have been weary of collaborating with vaccination workers, leading to violence in some cases:
Peter Hotez, MD, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, has been on the receiving end of threats and harassment for decades. When asked about the current state of uncivil discourse about vaccines, Dr. Hotez said that it was “an awful new normal.” Certainly, the advent of social media has allowed anti-vaccine groups to coordinate better, and the monetization of anti-vaccine messages on platforms like YouTube has encouraged entertainers to cater to an audience with anti-vaccine lies and misinformation without much of a filter.