Anti-Vaxxers Are Trolling Grieving Parents Who Lost Kids & It Needs to Stop

Serese Marotta

Serese Marotta and her two children pose outside while on vacation.
Serese Marotta

Losing a child is a nightmare no parent should ever have to endure, but losing one to a preventable disease can almost be too much for the heart to take. Sadly, Serese Marotta knows all too well what that heartbreak is like. The Syracuse, New York, mom lost her 5-year-old son to the flu in 2009, and she has been channeling her grief into activism ever since. But she never could have expected that the work she does now -- educating other parents about the things she so desperately wishes she once knew -- would put her on the receiving end of vicious online trolling.

  • Since 2019, Marotta has worked as the chief operating officer for Families Fighting Flu, which advocates flu awareness and prevention.

    As a result, she spends a lot of time educating families about the importance of the flu vaccine -- and a lot of time taking heat from anti-vaxxers, who have called her every name in the book.

    According to Marotta, Families Fighting Flu shares a wide variety of flu-related content on social media from general flu surveillance information to personal stories to scientific studies. Yet anything even remotely related to the flu vaccine is pretty much guaranteed to be a lightning rod.

    "On average, we usually get a handful of negative comments every week," she says, adding that although most are "relatively harmless," there are plenty that stay with her, months or even years later. 

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  • Like the time Marotta hosted a Facebook Live video on the eighth anniversary of her son's death.

    Serese Marrotta with her two children, including Joseph.
    Serese Marrotta

    "There were several individuals who called me some nasty names and used some really threatening language," she tells CafeMom. Screenshots of the comments, obtained by CNN, show Facebook users calling the grieving mother everything from a "sl*t" to a "pharma wh*re."

    "How much is this b*tch getting paid?" one user snapped.

    "FFF frequently gets comments calling us liars, idiots, trolls, and morons, accusing us of being part of a conspiracy that's killing people," Marotta says. 

    But these attacks were personal. These stung.

  • And yet they're part of a disturbing trend that's gaining momentum: anti-vax trolling, fueled by a mix of misinformation and social media outrage.

    A CNN report recently uncovered more parents just like Marotta, who also found themselves on the receiving end of cruel Internet strangers.

    After Catherine and Greg Hughes lost their 1-month old son, Riley, to whooping cough, they founded the nonprofit Light for Riley. Their baby was too young to be vaccinated, and like most newborns Riley's age, he relied on herd immunity (the vaccinations of others) to protect him from the virus. Sadly, it wasn't enough -- especially because their home city of Perth, Australia, has a particularly low vaccination rate.

    "Riley's death was a very inconvenient truth for anti-vaccine activists," Catherine told CNN, adding that the anti-vaxx trolling began almost immediately. "The nasty messages started 24 hours after he died. They called us baby killers and said we would have the blood of other babies on our hands. We've been told to kill ourselves."

    The Light for Riley Facebook page has been the prime target, with messages such as "[F*ck] you, Hughes family," left on photos and "What a [f*cking] evil wh*re you really are," on its timeline.

  • It's not just happening to grieving parents, either -- though the fact that it is might be the most heartbreaking part of all of this. 

    Kids Plus Pediatrics in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, recently got a dose of this too after posting on Facebook about vaccinating for HPV, a cancer-causing virus. According to the Washington Post, what followed was a coordinated virtual attack on the medical practice, orchestrated by an anti-vaxxer in Australia who was directing people within a private Facebook group to post negative comments and reviews.

    They were actually tipped off by an individual inside the Facebook group, who began sharing screenshots of the "coordinated attacks."

    “She would say, 'Let’s move on to Yelp reviews,’ then change tactics and say, ‘Let’s go after the Facebook reviews,’ ” communications director Chad Hermann told the Washington Post.

  • Some of this, Marrotta admits, is to be expected. After all, Internet comment threads are still pretty much the Wild West.

    Serese Marrotta's son Joseph smiles while playing a toy guitar.
    Serese Marrotta

    "Those of us who work in this space understand that we're going to be exposed to people who may not believe in vaccines," she tells CafeMom. "For those that are what we call 'vaccine-hesitant,' meaning they have some questions and concerns, we encourage an open dialogue to address those questions and concerns."

    But there are levels to the viciousness, Marotta says. Oh, how there are levels ...

    "[Other] people have been around for quite some time, but their disturbing behavior of bullying and threatening people seems to be reaching an unprecedented high level," she explains. "Unfortunately, in the digital age we live in, it's very easy for these keyboard warriors to spew hatred on social media channels."

  • The truth is, these comments often go way beyond typical Internet snark. Along with their hostility, they peddle dangerous misinformation.

    Although vaccines aren't federally mandated and parents have the right to claim religious or medical exemptions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has made it clear: Vaccines save lives, and they're imperative for preventing the spread of infectious diseases and viruses. 

    In fact, it's areas with low vaccination rates that are experiencing severe measles outbreaks, putting children, pregnant women, and other immunocompromised residents at risk. Officials in Rockland County, New York, just declared a state of emergency over the health crisis and even went so far as to ban unvaccinated children from indoor public spaces.

    "We're not punishing the people who are doing the right thing already and following the rules," said John Lyon, director of communications for the county executive. "We just want to encourage everyone to do the right thing so we can stop this outbreak."

  • Many who belong to the anti-vax movement strongly believe in a link between vaccines and developmental disorders, but the science just isn't there.

    Widespread hysteria over vaccines allegedly causing autism was first spread in the late 1990s, thanks to a now-debunked study by Andrew Wakefield, which was later found to have fabricated research findings. (Wakefield was also later stripped of his medical license.)

    Over the years, countless other studies have repeatedly disproven that vaccines cause developmental disorders. In fact, just this month, a study in Denmark found that the MMR vaccine did not increase the risk of autism in children who weren't already at risk and didn't trigger it in those who weren't.

    And yet, the vaccine debate rages on -- with no signs of stopping any time soon. For certain pockets of the country who believe the decision to vaccinate their child is no one's business but their own, the issue is about rights. But for the millions of other American parents who do vaccinate -- and the public health officials who warn against the dangers of widespread outbreaks -- it's about rights, too. Specifically, the ones we have to protect ourselves against potentially fatal diseases.

    Perhaps the least that anti-vaxxers can do in the meantime is to keep their comments on the issue at hand and lay off the vicious rhetoric. Surely we can all agree that grieving parents deserve their anger least of all.