Meet the Mom Who's Taking on Anti-Vaxers​


When you hear vaccine advocacy, what's the first thing that comes to mind? A doctor in a white coat? A scientist with a microscope? How about a couple of moms, fighting for kids across America?

Karen Ernst is one of those moms, and with partner Ashley Shelby, she has helped turn Voices for Vaccines, a fledgling website about infectious diseases, into the number one source for parents looking to fight anti-vaccine fear-mongering. With a scientific advisory board that includes world renowned pediatrician Dr. Paul Offit, they're an arm of the Task Force for Global Health that's completely parent-driven ... and completely parent-focused.

The Stir asked Ernst, a mother of three from Minnesota, why she thinks every mom in America needs to announce to her family and friends when she gets her kids vaccinated -- and how to deal with anti-vaccine rhetoric.


What is your background?
I was an English teacher in a previous life.

So not science, not pharmacology?
No, not even close! I took a couple science classes in college -- the ones for humanities majors, you know, the science for poets kind of thing (laughs).

I taught English for a long time -- I've even taught adjunct classes recently -- but I think part of what got to me is one of the things I taught as an English teacher was research methods, how to write a research paper, in particular how to look at your sources.

People would come up with this crazy stuff. I'd be talking on the playground with a mom, and she'd talk about the side effects of flu shots, for example, during the H1N1 outbreak, and I'd think to myself "What are you looking at? Does where you're getting your information have any credibility at all?" It just sort of drove me nuts that people would be willing to believe anything they read or heard without inspecting the credibility.

That's what drove my interest into pro-vaccine advocacy -- really wanting people to look at something credible and understand the difference between a credible source and a non-credible source and be really critical of where you're getting your information.

Do you encounter parents who don't vaccinate in your every day life or is it more on the internet?
That's actually how I started was by encountering somebody in my real life who didn't vaccinate. The very first inkling that I ever had was when I had my son's 5th birthday. He went to pre-school that day, and my sons' birthdays are very close, so I also had a 10-day-old baby. Because it was his birthday, we stayed that whole day. It happened to be the end of the school year, so there were popsicles and bikes and all sorts of crazy stuff going on.

My 10-day-old baby was there too. Fortunately he was in a super cranky mood, so I was carrying him the whole time. The next day I got a call from the lady at the front desk of the pre-school telling me that one of the children at the school had just been diagnosed with chicken pox and she said, "I want you to call your pediatrician right now."

Chicken pox in a newborn is a huge, big deal. You don't want your newborn to get chicken pox. He ended up staying gone for awhile, and when he came back, I confronted the mom.

I didn't confront her in a mean way, it's not like she was an awful, horrible human being who was evil and purposely trying to get people sick. She was a nice person and a good mom and all of these things but she had chosen not to get her child vaccinated.

And I confronted her and I said, "You didn't get the vaccine?" And she said, "Eh, no, that's not important."

And I was like, "But it was important to me! I have a baby!"

That's the kind of interaction you have in real life. Someone makes an offhand comment, and you're like, wait, it is important, but people make social niceties and are polite.

If the Internet didn't exist, I don't think the anti-vaccine movement would be where it is at all. People wouldn't say the things they say on the Internet.

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On the Internet, there's this veil of anonymity where they can come out and say whatever they want and they make these little groups where they congregate together and don't let any pro-vaccine people in and they can spin their tales and weave their web of misinformation. They say things I can't believe they'd ever say in real life in polite company.

I know people in real life who are anti-vaccine and they know I'm pro-vaccine, but the encounters are certainly a lot more ... heated ... when there's that internet in between you and the other human being.

There was a study that came out a few months ago about how vaccine deniers won't be swayed. So how do you feel that being mothers talking to people has the power to break through that?
That study was interesting. They took people who had varying levels of acceptance and denial of vaccines and they showed them facts and statistics on the Internet -- look at this, now what do you think. There wasn't any inter-personal back and forth with that, which I think makes a difference.

There's been studies designed looking at people's social networks. When people are deciding whether or not to vaccinate, they're much more likely to decide not to if they're getting advice -- if even 30 percent of the people around them are saying no, no don't vaccinate. 

Karen Ernst
Voices for Vaccines co-founder Karen Ernst
I think there is a person-to-person aspect of it that's really important. Part of what we want parents to do is just say that they vaccinate their kids.

I'm betting those people who say people are telling me not to vaccinate, there's a lot of people around them who would advise them to vaccinate who are just saying nothing. 

As far as parents speaking up, I think it's really important just to normalize in your community immunizing. Everyone has an opportunity every fall to say "Hey, my kid got the flu shot -- did you remember to get your flu shot yet?"

How do you guys differentiate from the people who are on the attack? How do you make sure you don't fall into that trap and become the attacker?
It's really important to maintain your level of optimism for the human race so to speak, that when people are discussing with you that your first thought is "This is a question." I think any question -- no matter the intent of how it's asked -- deserves an answer ...

People who are in your life who are anti-vaccines who say these things, a gentle matter-of-fact answer is very helpful. You assume the very best about people, you assume they're asking the question because they have a question, not because they're trying to spread some fear uncertainty or doubt.

Do you have recommendations for pro-vax parents when it comes to putting it out there, how to deal if they do get attacked? It does happen on social media.
Oh, especially on social media! On social media, if you say something in your own personal space and someone wants to attack you for it, you don't have to let that stay there.

There's no reason why that, in your own space, opinion that you disagree with has to stay there. You are allowed to delete that comment. I know I've deleted comments about all sorts of things and then messaged the person to say I deleted your comment because it goes against what I believe and I don't let that stand on my page.

Where it gets much trickier is when you're standing there and you say, "I got my kid the flu shot," and someone says, "You got your kid the flu shot? Now they're going to get autism."

I always say it's a perfectly acceptable answer to look at someone and say, "My doctor recommended that I get a flu shot. I take my children to my doctor because I trust my doctor, and I like my doctor, and I know my doctor is giving my children a standard of care that is supported by multiple organizations, and I feel really good providing my child with the kind of care recommended by all of these people."

I think you just have an easy fallback like that -- I trust my doctor.

I don't think you have to go around with cards telling you, oh, flu shots, autism ... let me tell you what that's wrong. I don't think you need to get into a debate!

Why do you feel it's important for parents to speak up? If the pediatricians are out there telling everyone to get the MMR vaccine, why do we need parents to speak up too?
A lot of people hear the scary things, and they hear these blog posts and these anecdotes and these testimonials and they're all anti-vaccine. And the reason they hear those is because the stories most of us have to tell is "I took my child to get vaccinated and nothing happened."

And that's not a story that has a lot of cachet.

If you Google vaccines or vaccine safety, what comes up is this assault of scary stuff. The facts don't often come up and certainly not these normal stories that parents have to tell come up. That's what we're trying to do at Voices for Vaccines is tell those stories.

I think what that does is make that seem like there's another side, maybe there's a legitimate alternate viewpoint to immunization when there really isn't. The people who are getting all this press is the tiniest fraction of people and what they're saying is not at all supported by science.

You're not going to say, I got my kid vaccinated and nothing happened, but you've got this platform in the hearts and the minds of all these people around you -- your neighbors, your friends, your family. You say, I got my kid vaccinated, and then it's, "well mine are too," and "mine are too," and "mine are too," and the people of your life know all these kids -- especially people who are of child-bearing age and trying to make a decision about vaccinating.

It's a very normal thing, it's a very non-scary thing, all these children are wonderful, you don't mind spending time with these children, everything's going OK. That's an important sort of testimonial for immunization.

A lot of times by the time parents walk into a pediatrician's office, their decision is made. In fact, a lot of parents by the time the baby is born their decision is made. A lot of parents speaking up and showing how normal immunization is really critical.

Why do you think a parent-driven, mom-driven group can make a difference?
You know, mom-driven groups have been making a difference for a long time. Moms certainly are one of the huge social changers in the world, probably more so than people realize. I really think a parent-driven group can make a difference because it's sort of one of those fight fire with fire things.

The anti-vaccine movement has been relying on the fact that they have some sort of parent voice and they feel like they're sort of above reproach because they're just parents speaking out.

I think that's unnecessarily given the a lot of power. The truth of the matter is that parents who want to make a difference and come together can make a difference.

It's important that we don't give up our spot at the table speaking about immunizations to anti-vaccine parents because it's not a fair representation of parents on immunization.


If you want to become a parent advocate for Voices for Vaccine, they have a "join us" section on their website. The group is also offering a Vaccine Advocacy 101 workshop call on Wednesday, August 6.

How do you handle it when someone says something negative about vaccines?


Images via ©; Karen Ernst

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