A coalition of doctors at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth is pushing back against an army of online trolls who viciously attack the hospital for its pro-vaccine stance.
“We do believe in our pediatricians and specialists who deal with infectious diseases, and we do believe that vaccines are safe,” said Dr. Justin Smith, a pediatrician and medical director of digital health for Cook Children’s Hospital.
Although the online attacks over vaccines are not new, the hospital is bracing for the possibility of more, given the nation’s current number of measles cases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 981 cases of measles this year, the highest count in nearly three decades.
Fort Worth factors in by being one of the top spots in the nation for the so-called anti-vaccine movement, according to a 2018 national study by the Public Library of Science.
“We’re not sure why, but we do know that in places where vaccination rates are lower, it’s a breeding ground for outbreaks of diseases,” Smith said. “That’s where it has us the most concerned.”
Getting the word out is another concern.
Dr. Diane Arnaout, a pediatrician at Cook Children’s Pediatrics Fort Worth-Forest Park, said she is attacked on her personal Facebook page and on the hospital’s Facebook page whenever she advocates for vaccines.
The backlash has included name-calling and one-star reviews from people she has never met. “Some of them are in a different state,” she told me.
The so-called anti-vaxxers have also made memes about her that are so awful she won’t describe them.
One of the worst attacks happened when she posted a photo of her daughter wearing a pro-vaccine T-shirt during national vaccine month. Some of the commenters told her she was a horrible mother and that her daughter would probably develop autism from the vaccines.
Although this has gone on for some time, things spiraled out of control about a year ago, when the hospital posted a video titled “Take the Shot. Prevent Cancer.” The video featured a panel of experts touting the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine, a notoriously sore topic for Texas.
Some of the comments on the video include:
“This vaccine is garbage, and you know it.”
“Well … that’s what evil looks and sounds like folks. Ignorance is no excuse when the Internet is available. Do NOT get that HPV shot. It’s the worst science EVER. Worse than the flu shot even.”
“Do your own research. Doctors have recommended cigarettes, Vioxx, opioids, and countless other drugs that are now recalled. When doctors go on strike, the mortality rate decreases!”
The above comments are just a small sample of what can pop up on the hospital’s social media accounts.
“Some of them are personal attacks, and we decided we should do something,” said Kim Brown, a spokesperson for Cook Children’s Hospital. “We formed a coalition to put out truth and facts and combat the disinformation.”
Although it’s still growing, other groups, including the Immunization Collaboration of Tarrant County and the Texas Immunization Partnership, are also involved.
Every time a potentially controversial post about vaccines is published on the hospital’s social media pages, at least 25 doctors are notified, Brown said. They stand ready to counter the dozens of insults that are likely to appear. Other staffers monitor the pages around the clock to refute or erase any comments they deem to be inaccurate or too controversial.
Many of the comments center on questions about safety, developmental issues, or the effectiveness of the vaccines, Smith said.
“Research says loud and clear that vaccines are safe,” Smith said. “Most side effects are going to be minor and short-lived like a fever or soreness at the injection.”
On the other hand, there is a plethora of YouTube videos of people saying that they or a family member suffered debilitating consequences after receiving a vaccine.
Arnaout believes many of the comments directed at her and other doctors are made in fear. “Most of them are not filled with ill intent,” she said. “Like most parents, they’re simply worried about their kids.”
Arnaout also attributes the concerns to disinformation and a lack of understanding: “I don’t think that they understand the vaccine testing and vaccine safety and how vaccines work in the human body. All it takes is a little rational conversation and a back-and-forth understanding.”
For example, although it’s normal to feel achy or “out of it” following a flu vaccine, it’s not possible to get the flu from the vaccine, she said.
“There is a lot of fear of the unknown, and we are in an age where natural is seen as better,” Arnaout said. “And there can’t be anything more natural than a vaccine to most people. What I try to help people understand is that ‘natural’ also means ‘death.’ There’s nothing more natural than whooping cough. Or HPV.”
Arnaout said she offers her perspective as a doctor, having seen the diseases in action: “And I’m giving my perspective as a mother and how I had my kids vaccinated,” she said. “That’s how I try to approach it.”
The so-called “modern anti-vaccine movement” gained traction in the 1980s. The movement was started by a mom who aggressively campaigned to spread the word that she believed her son was injured by the Diphtheria/Pertussis/Tetanus (DPT) vaccine, according to the Washington Post.
The profitability of the vaccine industry has also raised suspicions among some anti-vaccine activists. The vaccine market is estimated at nearly $4 billion, according to the World Health Organization.
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, made headlines in 2007 for issuing an executive order to mandate an HPV vaccine for young girls. The order was later overturned by the legislature.
Later, questions were raised about ties between Perry and the vaccine manufacturer Merck, the pharmaceutical company whose political-action committee “gave Perry $29,500 since 2000,” according to the Washington Post.