How to respond to 'anti-vaxxers'

June 2020

Since the first vaccine was invented, there have been groups of people opposed to them. This may be because vaccines, unlike other medical treatments, have to be given to healthy people to protect against illness. People often question why they need a vaccine when they are healthy but if they are seriously ill, they do not question treatment.

Vaccines are one of the safest health interventions we have, saving millions of lives every year. Before a vaccine is used, the safety profile needs to be much higher than for other medicines. This is because they are one of the few treatments given to healthy people to prevent illness. Despite their proven safety, staunch opposition to the development and use of vaccines can occasionally be encountered online. These views have become known as ‘anti-vax’.

If you have felt the devastating impact of a vaccine preventable disease in your life, it can be very distressing to come across ‘anti-vax’ views. This is particularly true if you have been bereaved, and you know that your loved one would still be here if they’d had access to a particular vaccine. In this situation, when we encounter ‘anti-vax’ sentiment, our initial impulse is to respond with anger.
 

The best thing to do to protect you and your loved ones from meningitis is to get immunised.

 
This is an understandable reaction, but it isn’t the most effective. In fact, evidence suggests that angry comments on social media can polarise people’s views further and they may be even less likely to accept any scientific or medical advances.
 
There are lots of reasons why a person might share ‘anti-vax’ views, and they aren’t always malicious. There is a lot of misinformation online, and some well-meaning people will assume that it is correct without doing further research. Please click here to learn more about identifying misinformation.
 
Some people prefer to identify as ‘vaccine hesitant’ or ‘vaccine sceptical’, rather than ‘anti-vax’. This means that they have concerns about vaccines, for a variety of reasons, rather than being strictly opposed. When engaging with people who appear to be vaccine hesitant, experts suggest that the aim should be to acknowledge and empathise with their concerns before working to alleviate them - rather than immediately dismissing concerns, or trying to replace them with alternative information.
 
Below, we have provided a stock response that can be used when you encounter vaccine hesitant views online from friends or family.

"Hello. I can understand why you might have some concerns about vaccines as there is a lot of misinformation online, and it can be hard to know who to trust. I’m very passionate about this issue and would encourage you to do some further reading before sharing these sorts of things. Vaccines have been around for a long time, and have proven to be one of the safest and most effective public health interventions in history. They save millions of lives every year. You can find lots of information about how vaccines work from these trusted sources of vaccine information:

https://vk.ovg.ox.ac.uk/vk/
https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaccinations/why-vaccination-is-safe-and-important/
https://www.who.int/topics/vaccines/en/

The Meningitis Research Foundation Support team can also answer any specific questions that you may have. You can reach them on 080 8800 3344, or email helpline@meningitis.org."
 

Our helpline can support you when you encounter upsetting content.

It’s important to remember that not everyone will be amenable to this type of response. Many ‘anti-vaxxers’ will have been convinced by popular conspiracy theories or “fake news”, and it is not easy to convince them otherwise. The best thing that you can do to help slow the spread of misinformation, as well as protect your own mental health, is to present a civil response. Leave some reliable information for anyone else reading the thread and then avoid further responses.

If this is in your personal social media space and it is upsetting, you can easily block and unfollow people if it is causing distress.

Where friends and family are concerned, we think that stepping in to help them understand more is the right thing to do. When it is coming from people you don’t know, however, bear in mind that misinformation thrives off engagement. The more people who click on, comment or engage with a post, the more likely it is to spread. Reporting the post itself to Facebook, Twitter, or wherever you’ve come across it will be more effective.

Do remember that it is not your responsibility to correct every piece of misinformation you see online, however tempting it may be. If you are hurt, angry or frustrated by something you see written online, our Support team can help you work through those difficult emotions and give you advice on how to respond.
 
Call the Meningitis Research Foundation helpline on 080 8800 3344, email helpline@meningitis.org, or find us on Facebook.
Share this

Meningococcal Group W (MenW) is a particularly virulent strain of bacterial meningitis which is on the rise in the UK and Ireland.


Teenagers and young adults have a higher risk of contracting MenW than other age groups.

Vaccine hesitancy is one of the biggest threats to global health. But why does it happen?
MRF Evidence and Policy Manager (Prevention), Claire Wright, discusses the pros and cons of making vaccination compulsory in the fight against meningitis and septicaemia
A partnership with a worldwide expert group to promote and share world class research into best practice about prevention, diagnosis and treatment of meningococcal disease around the world.
Give researchers the clues to help defeat meningitis
Give researchers the clues to help defeat meningitis
£160/€190/$214 decodes the genetic information in a sample of meningococcal bacteria. This information helps us to track new forms of meningitis and campaign to introduce new vaccines.

About the author

Holly Edwards
Senior Communications Officer

Hi, I'm Holly, and I joined MRF in 2017.

I'm always looking for stories that will help more people understand meningitis and the devastating impact it can have. Working with people who have been affected by meningitis is a great privilege, and I feel very lucky to do what I do.

Tel: 0333 405 6255