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Stop Bullying Anti-Vaxxers! It Isn't Helping

If you've been paying any attention at all to social media over the last few weeks, you've seen the frenzy rising. Amidst a recent measles outbreak, the demonization of the anti-vaxxer crowd has reached a fever pitch. People are out for blood, and there seems to be no end in sight.

"Ignorant," "idiot," "morons"—these are just a few of the negative sentiments being tossed around. There is a mob mentality that has people calling for physical violence and forced vaccinations. And as I read through the various comment threads, I can't help but wonder, "How does anyone think this might help?"

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When was the last time that someone talking down to you, bullying you or calling you names actually changed your mind about anything? These discussions that are dissolving so quickly into harassment territory aren't solving the problem. They aren't about educating or enlightening. Instead, they're Internet bullying at their very best—a group of parents eager for opportunities to elevate themselves above those they see as being inferior in their parenting choices.

Making this, perhaps, the most dangerous mommy war of all.

Every time I hear someone go off on how irresponsible anti-vaccination parents are, what I really hear is them saying, "Clearly, I'm a better parent." It is this self-congratulatory air of superiority that isn't actually about wanting to change minds or educate; it is purely about wanting to elevate themselves above someone else.

So … congratulations?

The national vaccination rate last year, at the beginning of this most recent outbreak, was 91 percent. That's the same it was in 2000, when measles was considered to be eradicated.

But here's the problem. If you genuinely care about changing the minds of those who are fearful about vaccinations, then you need to be willing to have these conversations in a respectful manner. And you need to first attempt to understand where the other side is coming from before you can have a discussion that might actually affect change.

So full disclosure: I am a vaccine-wary mom. I was one of those moms who was on the fence about vaccinations before I had a child. And when my daughter was born, I poured through the research, reading everything I could get my hands on about vaccinations, relying heavily on the information that is readily available through the CDC website. Ultimately, I decided the benefits outweighed the risks, and my daughter has been vaccinated, albeit on an extended schedule. But after working so hard to fully understand the arguments on both sides of this debate, I can tell you with certainty that the way we are waging this war isn't getting anyone anywhere.

And both sides are failing to see the whole picture.

So let's start with some facts.

There is this big misconception right now that anti-vaxxers are growing at an exponential rate. But the reality is, their numbers haven't changed much in the last 20 years. Nationally, vaccination rates have fluctuated between 89.5 percent and 92.5 percent over the last two decades.

Yes, there are pockets where anti-vaxxers seem to cluster together and the non-vaccination rates are higher in certain areas. But even in California, where those clusters seem to be most prominent, only 3 percent of kindergarteners start school with exemptions for vaccinations.

The vast majority of this country is still on board with vaccinating. And you know what else? The national vaccination rate last year, at the beginning of this most recent outbreak, was 91 percent. That's the same it was in 2000, when measles was considered to be eradicated. According to the CDC, 91 percent is a high coverage rate.

You can't say we eradicated the disease in 2000, and then simultaneously say that anti-vaxxers are solely to blame for this recent outbreak. Because their movement hasn't grown. It has certainly gotten louder, with various celebrities lending their names to it, but those who opt completely out of vaccinations remain the same outliers they have always been. Their numbers haven't changed. This makes vilifying them in this recent outbreak nonsensical at best, and an egregious misrepresentation of the facts at worst.

There's a touch of irony there though, isn't there? The fact that those most loudly crying out against the anti-vaccination crowd for not being educated are the same ones who clearly failed to bother researching whether or not the movement has actually grown before choosing to blame them here. After all, it is so much more gratifying to blame those "ignorant anti-vaxxers" than to dig any deeper in the quest for answers.

You want a little more perspective? In the last 10 years, the CDC reports that there has been only one death in the United States from the measles, yet this is the issue that is sparking such major outrage and contempt against those who fear vaccinations. Meanwhile, a study in the journal "Pediatrics" that was published last year revealed that 10,000 children are killed or injured by guns in the United States every single year. Of those, 3,000 are dead before they ever reach the hospital.

Why is the same level of universal acrimony not being applied to an issue that is statistically killing far more children than the anti-vaccination movement?

If this debate is really about saving the lives of children, why is the same level of universal acrimony not being applied to an issue that is statistically killing far more children than the anti-vaccination movement?

I'm not trying to make an already complicated issue even more complicated. I'm just saying, let's have some perspective when we go into these debates guns blazing (pun intended). The argument is routinely made that the reason vaccinations are a mommy war worth debating is because anti-vaxxers have the ability to affect and harm those outside their own family. Well, you know what else has that same ability?

Irresponsible gun owners. Lax gun laws. Even the dismal state of mental healthcare in this country. These are things that also put all of our lives at risk. All of our kid's lives, at risk. So why are so many quickly jumping on the bandwagon to demonize anti-vaxxers, while simultaneously being unwilling to commit a similar level of outrage to the level of gun-related violence in this country, compared to those with stricter laws? Why are we so quick to blast parents who exercise their personal freedoms and rights in one instance, but then so adamant about clinging to our own rights in the next?

If you want to argue that an educated person should focus on facts and statistics, you need to be willing to do the same. And statistically speaking, there are a lot of important issues in this country that are responsible for causing far more harm than the anti-vaccination movement.

So lets revisit that one death for a moment. The disease causing this big uproar has killed a single person in the United States in the last 10 years. Meanwhile, the CDC reports that there have been 106 deaths that can potentially be attributed to the measles vaccine in that same time period.

There is so much more to this than just the difference in deaths caused by the disease and the vaccine. And it does become clear that the benefits still outweigh the risks when you dig a little deeper. I promise, I will get to that. But for just a moment, let's allow that disparity of risk to serve as a reminder that people have fears associated with vaccinations that go beyond any debunked autism research.

Vaccinations come with risks. Risks that are readily acknowledged by the CDC and made public for anyone who cares to look into them. Some of those risks include death. Downplaying or pretending that away doesn't serve anyone, particularly when we are talking about children here and parents who just desperately want to keep their children safe. People have fears, and their fears are justified.

Now, let's get back to those numbers because it is important to put that into perspective as well. Yes, there are risks associated with nearly every vaccination. And the CDC outlines those pretty well. Just looking at the MMR vaccination, you will see that potential side effects include seizures, deafness and brain damage. Some of that is scary stuff, but when you dig deeper, you find that the most severe side effects are extremely rare. To the point that it is difficult to know whether they are truly linked to the vaccine, or to other issues occurring around the time of vaccination.

Which brings us to those 106 deaths. First of all, it is incredibly important to note that the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) is required to report all adverse events following a vaccination, even if it isn't clear the vaccination was to blame. Correlation does not always prove causation. Reading through the reports associated with those 106 deaths, it is obvious that some of those deaths likely involved other factors. There are a handful that do seem to have truly been adverse reactions, but certainly not all. And when you put the numbers into context, remembering that over 3 million children receive the MMR vaccination in the United States every year, 106 deaths over a 10-year timespan is a pretty negligible number.

That doesn't necessarily alleviate fears when it comes to a concerned parent, but it is important to keep in mind.

We are lucky to have the option of protecting our own children made so readily available to us. We are lucky to have this be an issue we can even debate.

The other thing to remember is that far more children are receiving the vaccination compared to those who are contracting measles. Prior to this recent outbreak, we were seeing less than 100 cases of measles every year. If as many kids were contracting measles as are receiving the vaccination, you can guarantee we would be seeing more adverse affects of the disease itself. The proof of that is in what this disease is already doing worldwide, with the World Health Organization reporting that in 2013, 145,700 people died of measles globally. And The Washington Post recently reported that for every 1,000 cases of the measles, 1 or 2 will result in death.

Let there be no doubt; the more this disease spreads, the more deaths we will see. And let's also remember that the mere fact we are arguing about this goes to show what a first-world issue it is. Because in other countries, mothers would willingly walk 10 miles, barefoot in soaring heat, just to give their children a chance at these vaccinations. We are lucky to have the option of protecting our own children made so readily available to us. We are lucky to have this be an issue we can even debate.

But it isn't just about deaths. Another common misconception I have seen presented about measles online is that it is similar to chicken pox, just another childhood illness that most of us are equipped to battle on our own. That can be true for some, but the reality is, dealing with the measles is no joke. Yes, fatalities are rare in the United States, but not the other long-lasting effects that too frequently accompany this disease, including encephalitis, brain damage and deafness.

So I get it. I get the fear on both sides. I don't want my daughter to get the measles either! But I can also see how someone might have looked at a disease they were told was otherwise eradicated, and decided that the risk of being exposed to it was low enough to forgo the risks of the vaccination.

The problem is, 90 percent of those exposed to the measles will contract it if they aren't vaccinated. And with numbers still out of control worldwide, there are no guarantees that you can avoid exposure. Which is why I personally came to the conclusion that this vaccine, in particular, was important for my daughter to receive. When I did the research, I realized that the benefits outweighed the risks, no matter how scary those risks may have been.

No, anti-vaxxers are not on a mission to kill your children. So stop talking to them as though they are.

But that was a journey. It took time. And research. And medical professionals who were willing to talk to me like I was an educated woman with valid fears and opinions, not those who would immediately talk down to me or tear me apart for even questioning.

And that's the problem with what is happening right now. Amidst all these conversations about how evil and wrong anti-vaxxers are, very few people are addressing the actual concerns or talking about the actual facts. When you do this, you are skewing reality and committing all the same sins you have accused them of. You are giving them reasons to distrust by allowing them to latch on to your misrepresentations and half-truths as proof that you aren't worthy of trusting.

Yes, this is an important issue. Yes, we need to be talking about it. Yes, the continued effectiveness of herd immunity is dependent upon the majority of this country continuing to vaccinate. But no, it is not an issue that has reached such a critical point that it is worthy of the level of vitriol it has inspired. And no, anti-vaxxers are not on a mission to kill your children. So stop talking to them as though they are.

RELATED: When a Co-Parent Is Anti-Vax, the Other Pro-Vax

There was an amazing piece in the New York Times recently about the importance of how we talk to those with vaccination fears. The gist? Turning this into a hot button issue, or a "mommy war," only serves to further divide these two camps, making an honest and beneficial conversation near impossible to have.

If what you really want is to affect change, be careful of how you approach this topic. And remember that most of us are just parents who love our children fiercely, and who want to do whatever we can to protect them. So speak to that instinct.

Not to the one that has you wanting to make it clear you are better than any parent who thinks differently from you.

Image via Daily Mail. Pictured are Ursula Porter's family, who have been shunned by their community for refusing to vaccinate one of their kids.

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