Anti-vaccine rhetoric may have been on the rise during the pandemic, but parents across the country who were once against vaccines have become big supporters of them. After sorting through misinformation, they struggle to understand their former community's reaction to COVID-19.

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Heather Simpson was once a popular anti-vaccine social media figure, posting to Facebook pages multiple times a day. She recalls receiving hundreds of thousands of shares and responses to her posts, and even went viral for a highly-criticized 2019 Halloween costume mocking measles.

But the pandemic forced the Dallas mom to completely shift her views and begin to uncover just how much disinformation she'd been fed.

"I realized that anti-vaxxers are also anti-maskers, which is putting other people in jeopardy," says Simpson. "And then I just started realizing they're just kind of 'anti' a lot of scientific consensus."

The reality is vaccines are safe and effective. It's been widely disproven that the MMR vaccine, which prevents measles, mumps, and rubella, leads to autism, yet there have been dangerous misinformation campaigns by the anti-vaccine movement, which scientists, and those who support fact-based health care, have been actively refuting for decades. Simpson, and other parents like her, now understand this, largely because of how the COVID-19 pandemic illuminated the anti-vax movement's manipulation.

Simpson launched Back to the Facts, a Facebook page associated with the Back to the Vax social media group, along with her friend Lydia Greene, a mom in Alberta, Canada. Greene had also decided to get her three children their routine vaccines, after previously opposing vaccines, upon realizing the anti-vax movement's shortcomings during the pandemic. The two moms have become part of a growing group of parents who have switched from being anti-vaccine to embracing not only the COVID-19 vaccine, but all vaccines.

The Facebook groups these moms created provide a platform for members to connect, share their anxieties about the pandemic, and receive only science-backed information. "I do have a rule that when you share information, it's based on evidence," says Greene, who along with Simpson hosts the podcast Back to the Vax: A Journey Back to Evidence Based Medicine. "We've seen enough misinformation to last a lifetime and I just don't want that shared. I have no room for that in the group."

To join the group, one must fulfill a thorough screening administered by Greene, and members must follow a list of rules ranging from the usual courtesies to "we are evidenced based," only "vax-anxious" people allowed, and medical advice should only be sought from doctors, experts, or local public health offices.

Most of the members in the group are parents, many of whom are still in the process of catching their children up on vaccines they'd skipped in the past. With that process comes a great deal of uncertainty, for which they turn to the Facebook group for support.

An image of vaccine shots.
Credit: Getty Images.

Becoming Pro-Vaccine

One mom of two in New York City, Anita,* says fear-mongering conspiracy theories shared by anti-vax groups made her not want to vaccinate her kids, as well as religious aversion to use of fetal cell lines in vaccine development, confirmation, or production. But she spent months educating herself on vaccines-seeking information straight from doctors, epidemiologists, and scientists themselves-and decided to vaccinate her children.

What made her change her mind? She noticed many holes in the anti-vaxxers' rhetoric, including the false anti-vax claim that immunization didn't eradicate smallpox (it did), but a natural occurrence of herd immunity did. In the early days of the pandemic, Anita found herself wondering, "If that's how we beat smallpox, well, then come on and help us beat COVID. Show us that we can do it without a vaccine."

Another member of the Back to the Vax Facebook group, Jalana Smith, says that seeing the overlap between anti-vaxxers and COVID-19 deniers inspired her to look more closely at the social media posts they'd shared. Smith, a parent from Nevada County, California, clarifies that in the past she'd considered herself vaccine-hesitant, as she didn't see the remote area she lives in as a threat for exposure to the diseases prevented by vaccines (though medical professionals explain that being low-risk for catching a disease doesn't negate the need for vaccines).

Since 2016, though, Smith began realizing that the vaccine information she'd previously consumed was either false or taken completely out of context. One example she notes was a social media post about the vaccine shedding myth which cited information from a Pfizer clinical trial protocol document as evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine spreads the virus through the skin. Smith recognized that a pre-trial paper could not possibly contain such information about a vaccine. She says, "I was like, even if [the vaccine shedding] were the case, that paper wouldn't say that because it was written before they even did the studies." Experts have since explained that the document was misinterpreted and taken out of context. "That was sort of a big step in me relooking at things that I had heard and believed about other vaccines," adds Smith.

The Guilt of Realizing You Were Wrong

After discovering scientific, fact-based truths, parents who "switch sides" can feel guilty about the stance they've had for years. "It's a stark, painful realization when you realize the danger you actually were to not only society as a whole, but especially our kids," says Kristina*, another parent in the Back to the Vax group, from New Mexico.

Another realization is how important it is to have an understanding community. Many who have become pro-vaccine have lost friends and faced family criticism, says Anita. Social groups like the Back to the Vax group offer a much-needed place to turn to. Some group members say other pro-vaccine groups they've joined lack the understanding and support they get from Back to the Vax.

"It's different coming from a person who's never questioned vaccines, who's always been pro-vaccine," says Anita. The anxiety over vaccines a person once felt doesn't just disappear. For example, in the lead-up to her infant son's first vaccines, Anita says, "I was awake all night, I was crying, I was praying, I was having funerals in my head."

Other groups on Facebook host evidence-based, scientifically accurate discussions about vaccines for people who may have questions, like Vaccine Talk: An Evidence Based Discussion Forum, which has more than 64,000 members. The Voices for Vaccines corresponding Facebook group, Straight Answers About Vaccines, also hosts discourse about vaccine information for its near 260 members. While the group doesn't have as much discussion about emotional difficulties in vaccinating one's children, Karen Ernst, the director of Voices for Vaccines and Facebook administrator of Straight Answers About Vaccines, says that such discussion would be allowed.

Yet those who have always been pro-vaccine may not understand the fear that can still unwillingly linger for group members who, like all parents, fear harming their child in any way. "I understand how strong that anxiety is, and we're not the average person in terms of that," says Greene. "We've kind of been brainwashed and it is a lot like leaving a cult."

The term "cult" comes up a lot in the newly pro-vaccine group's reflections on anti-vax groups-and it's a documented comparison. "They don't have a leader per se they'll die for, but they do have leaders like Sherri Tenpenny and The Highwire and RFK Jr. where they take what they say as gospel, and they donate money," says Simpson.

Kristina also reports cult-like behavior in one popular anti-vaccination Facebook group which is "known for immediately banning people as soon as they appear to no longer believe in essentially that group's cult [ideologies]," says Kristina. "As a former anti-vaxxer, I don't really like that term, but when you aren't allowed to question the authority there, there is an issue."

Finding a support group provides a meaningful therapeutic experience when recovering from any type of cult-like behavior, explains Gerette Buglion, author of An Everyday Cult and co-founder of I Got Out, a digital platform for survivors of cultic abuse. "When we're able to interact with others, it's like a mediating force," says Buglion.

Looking Forward

It takes a lot of work to find a solid footing after believing social media hoaxes often spread by the notorious "Disinformation Dozen." Much of that effort involves finding trustworthy sources, including medical professionals.

Although the members of Back to the Vax describe, at times, feeling regret when thinking about the past, they are now becoming part of the solution by promoting the truth about vaccination and getting their children vaccinated. Greene calls her group a "soft place to land," which proves crucial during a former anti-vaxxer or vaccine-hesitant parent's fraught embracing of pointy needles.

*Last names have been withheld for privacy.