What anti-vaxxers truly believe (or how reframing improves critical thinking)

Vaccines save millions of lives every year. However, the anti-vaccination movement causes a decline in vaccination rates, which results in extra diseases and deaths. Anti-vaxxers are people who have doubts about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines that are strongly recommended by health organizations. As a consequence, they want to refuse vaccinating their children against diseases such as polio and measles.

The anti-vaccination movement is harmful, so we need effective strategies to fight this movement. To do this, it might be interesting to understand what anti-vaxxers truly believe, by reframing the issue of vaccination. Reframing is an important philosophical technique that helps to detect fallacies or inconsistencies in beliefs. Here I present a reframing, using a thought-experiment, to understand exactly what anti-vaxxers stand for.

Suppose we have a vaccine, but unlike a classic injection vaccine, this is a self-producing vaccine that can spread through the air. Injection vaccines are produced in labs, whereas the self-producing vaccine is produced in the bodies of vaccinated people. Those bodies become vaccine factories. The exhaled air of the vaccinated people carries invisible vaccine particles to other people, which means that they are therefore automatically vaccinated. So you get this vaccine by inhalation instead of injection. With this vaccine in circulation, it is almost impossible to avoid vaccination, because then you should avoid all contact with vaccinated persons, wear gas masks or stop breathing.

The interesting property of this vaccine is that it is costless for health authorities: no more syringes and doctors required to administer the vaccine. Another benefit, in the eyes of people who dislike pharmaceutical companies, is that companies do not earn anything from this vaccine, because the vaccine produces itself using the bodies of vaccinated people. For people who don’t trust large pharmaceutical corporations: the vaccine was not designed by ‘Big Pharma’. In fact, no commercial interests were involved in the development of the vaccine.

The self-producing vaccine has some disadvantages, though. First, the vaccine has not undergone safety testing and evaluation by independent health scientists and regulatory agencies. Second, the vaccine production lacks transparency: it is not sold with a package leaflet that describes possible side-effects and safety instructions. No-one knows how the vaccine was initially developed. Third, the dose given to a person cannot be controlled as with an injection vaccine. That means some people get very high doses of the vaccine, even without knowing it. Fourth, and most importantly, the vaccine contains two dangerous additives, i.e. chemical ingredients that improve the self-production process. The first additive is a protein that allows for the vaccine particles to penetrate deeply into the cells of the body. The second additive is ribonucleic acid. This is a group of chemicals that can alter the genetic expression of cells. The cells become genetically modified to produce more vaccine particles. Unfortunately, this results in cell death. As a consequence, the self-producing vaccine can have some very serious side-effects. Many vaccinated people become seriously ill and can even die from the vaccination.

If you had to choose, which vaccine do you prefer: the injection vaccine or the self-producing inhalation vaccine? This is not merely a theoretical thought-experiment. The reader has already understood that the self-producing vaccine actually exists: it is called ‘measles’ (or ‘polio’, ‘mumps’,…).

Now there are people, called anti-vaxxers, who oppose the traditional injection vaccines. As a consequence, they are in favor of the self-producing vaccine, even if the self-producing vaccine turns out to be more harmful to health. Those people have several reasons to oppose the injection vaccines.

First, they absolutely do not want large pharmaceutical companies to earn money. As traditional injection vaccines have to be produced by pharmaceutical companies, they oppose those injection vaccines and turn to the self-producing vaccines. Hence, those anti-vaxxers think it is more important that some companies earn nothing than that people are healthy.

Second, the anti-vaxxers have a restrictive notion of freedom and autonomy. They believe that a person’s freedom or autonomy is violated when a vaccination is intentionally forced upon that person by people (doctors, ministers of health,…) who care about the health of that person. Here the intention is important. As people cannot escape the self-producing vaccine, this vaccine is forced upon them, but not intentionally. Nature (in particular the laws of chemistry) forces the vaccine upon them, and nature does not have intentions. Nature doesn’t care about the health of people like doctors do. Hence, the anti-vaxxers think intention is more important than health: it is more important to avoid intentional restrictions of freedom than unintentional restrictions of freedom, even when the latter cause more harm.

The anti-vaxxers claim to be against the injection vaccine because they believe that the vaccine causes diseases (such as autism), that the production lacks transparency, that the vaccine lacks safety testing, that certain additives are too dangerous,… However, as they chose the self-producing vaccine that has deadly side-effects, has no package leaflet, was not tested on safety, and definitely includes dangerous additives (that can deeply penetrate cells and genetically modify them), all those arguments are invalid.

The expression ‘self-producing vaccine’ was merely a reframing, intended to make clear that the beliefs of anti-vaxxers are inconsistent. The above thought-experiment is a good exercise in critical thinking. Many ethical issues can be tackled by reframing them.

Consider another belief of anti-vaxxers: that injection vaccines are harmful because they weaken our immune system (e.g. the immune system becomes too lazy not having to deal anymore with the real viruses). The anti-vaxxers believe the self-producing vaccine strengthens the immune system (at least for those people who survive the disease). As increasing the injection vaccination rate decreases the self-producing vaccination rate, the anti-vaxxers oppose the injection vaccines. But if decreasing the self-producing vaccination rate is bad (in terms of weakening the immune system), what about increasing the self-producing vaccination rate? Would creating new self-producing vaccines (i.e. new infectious viral diseases) be good for our immune system? Here I reframed the issue: instead of considering a decrease, we can consider an increase. As anti-vaxxers are against creating new diseases, neither decreasing nor increasing the self-producing vaccination rate is a good idea, according to anti-vaxxers. Hence, they believe that the self-producing vaccination rate (at a zero injection vaccination rate) is the optimal rate, but they cannot explain why this should be the case. This is an example of a status quo bias, tackled by a reframing technique called the ‘reversal test’.

It appears that the anti-vaccination gained strength during the Covid-19 crisis. Interestingly, during this crisis, many anti-vaxxers were against protective measures such as quarantines, lockdowns and obligations to wear facemasks. As these measures do not generate profits for pharmaceutical companies, the distrust in Big Pharma is not at play here. On the contrary: many anti-vaxxers are in favor of using chloroquine against Covid-19, believing that this drug has an antiviral effect. Here again we see a dangerous twist: at the time when anti-vaxxers proposed chloroquine, there was no evidence that chloroquine is safe and effective for treatment of covid-19 patients. To be clear: chloroquine is a drug that is produced by pharmaceutical companies. And if this drug will be used by thousands of covid-19 patients, it will be produced and sold at a large scale, which can only be done by Big Pharma. It again demonstrates that Big Pharma is not the real issue for those anti-vaxxers. The same goes for the worry about conflicts of interest. Anti-vaxxers distrust scientists who claim that vaccines are safe and effective, because they suspect financial conflicts of interests between those scientists and pharmaceutical companies. However, researchers with a high reputation in the anti-vaccination movement, such as Andrew Wakefield and Romain Gherardi, had some serious, undisclosed conflicts of interests. Hence, conflicts of interest is also not the real issue for anti-vaxxers.

Anti-vaxxers claim to value human health, children’s lives and personal freedoms. However, their opposition to effective injection vaccines is irrational and counterproductive. By choosing a more dangerous self-producing vaccine that is enforced upon everyone, they cause more deaths and loss of health, welfare and freedoms. Not only is the self-producing vaccine forced upon everyone, but patients also lose all their freedom when they die. The anti-vaccination movement is one of the most striking examples of irrationality, where good people, with the right moral values, can be turned towards bad choices, with harmful consequences.

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