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Dangers behind antimaskers and antivaxxers: How to combat both


 

Groups fueling each other

In some cases, antimask and antivaxx groups are joining forces or adopting dual causes.

In California for instance, longtime opponents to vaccines are now objecting to mask policies as similar infringement to their bodily autonomy. Demonstrations in Texas, Idaho, and Michigan against mask mandates and other COVID-19 requirements have drawn support from anti-vaccine activists and incorporated antivaccine propaganda.

In Illinois, Million Unmasked Patriots, formally the Million Unmasked March, has received widespread attention for protesting both masks for returning schoolchildren and a future COVID-19 vaccine requirement.

A July protest planned by the antimask group triggered a letter by Arora and 500 other healthcare professionals to Illinois lawmakers decrying the group’s views and urging the state to move forward with universal masking in schools.

“What’s happening is those who are distrustful of government and public health and science are joining together,” said Arora, who coauthored a piece about the problem on KevinMD.com. “It’s important to address both movements together because they can quickly feed off each other and build in momentum. At the heart of both is really this deep skepticism of science.”

Rebresh of Million Unmasked Patriots said most of his members are not opposed to all vaccines, but rather they are opposed to “untested vaccines.” The primary concern is the inability to research long-term effects of a COVID-19 vaccine before its approval, he said.

Rebresh disagrees with the antimask movement being compared with the antivaccine movement. The two groups are “motivated by different things and a different set of circumstances drive their opinions,” he said. However, Rebresh believes that potential harm resulting from “mass vaccinations” is a valid concern. For this reason, he and his wife chose for their children to receive their vaccinations individually over a series of weeks, rather than the “kiddie cocktail of vaccines,” at a single visit, he said.

Vaccine scientist Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, said the antivaccine movement appears to have grown stronger from the pandemic fueled by fresh conspiracies and new alliances. Antivaccine sentiment has been gaining steam over the last several years and collecting more allies from the far-right, said Hotez, dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine and codirector for the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

“Now what you’re seeing is yet another expansion this year, with antivaccine groups, under the banner of ‘health freedom,’ campaigning against social distancing and wearing masks and contact tracing,” he said. “What was an antivaccine movement has now become a full-blown antiscience movement and an anti-public health movement. It’s causing a lot of damage and I believe costing a lot of American lives.”

Neil F. Johnson, PhD, who has studied the antivaccine movement and its social media proliferation during the pandemic, said online comments by antivaxxers frequently condemn mask usage and showcase memes making fun of masks.

“In those same narratives about opposing vaccines for COVID, we see a lot of discussion against masks,” said Johnson, a physics professor at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “If you don’t believe in the official picture of COVID, you don’t believe the policies or the advice that’s given about COVID.”

An analysis by Johnson that examined 1,300 Facebook pages found that, while antivaxxers have fewer followers than provaccine pages, antivaccine pages are more numerous, faster growing, and are more often connected to unrelated, undecided pages. Conversely, pages that advocate the benefits of vaccinations and explain the science behind immunizations are largely disconnected from such undecided communities, according to the study, published May 13 in Nature.

The study suggests the antivaccine movement is making influential strides during the pandemic and connecting with people who are undecided, while public health advocates are not building the same bridges, Johnson said.

“I think it’s hugely dangerous, because I don’t know any other moment in science or in public health when there was so much uncertainty in something affecting everybody,” he said. “Every policy that will be coming, everything depends on people buying into the official message. Once you have the seeds of doubt, that’s a very difficult thing to overcome. It’s an unprecedented challenge.”

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