The anti-vaccination movement represents a new form of fundamentalism

In recent years, we have seen a steady rise in people refusing vaccinations. As the beliefs of the anti-vaccination movement are almost religious in nature, appealing to science and public health have little effect on their conviction.

Listen the article, read by its writer Astrid Aminoff:


Robert Crawford coined the term ‘Healthism’ in the 1980s. Crawford argued that a new wave of health consciousness together with the rise of health movements has resulted in health being continually construed as a problem of the individual.

Health is being continually construed as a problem of the individual.

A decade later Petr Skrabanek asserted that Healthism was a totalitarian means of coercing citizens into living healthy lifestyles. In Skrabanek’s account of Healthism, disease and sickness are preventable and thus caused by unhealthy lifestyles. As such, they are solely the fault of the individual.

Healthism is strongly manifested in the anti-vaccination movement worldwide. The anti-vaccination movement has been gaining momentum after it was suggested in 1998 that there is a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The claim has since been discredited.

Decline in vaccinations

As a result of sparser vaccination coverage, there have in recent years been measles outbreaks not only in Florida’s Disneyland, but also here in Lohja, where less than half of the pupils in a local school had been vaccinated. Last month a 14-year-old boy in India died because he was left intentionally unvaccinated.

Globally, states are taking action to tackle the anti-vaccination movement with California making vaccination a prerequisite for children to attend school, and Uganda going as far as to jail parents who refuse to vaccinate.

In order to achieve ‘herd immunity’, 95% of citizens need to be vaccinated. Some individuals cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. The main danger that anti-vaxxers pose to public health is the return of deadly diseases.

Scientific evidence is completely disregarded by anti-vaxxers, despite that they are usually well-educated and well-informed individuals.

Doctors are outraged as to why scientific evidence is completely disregarded by anti-vaxxers, despite the fact that they are usually well-educated and well-informed individuals.  Doctors have raised concern that the right of children to be protected from deadly disease is easily trampled by parents who harbor antipathy towards vaccination.

Mistrust in government and big corporations

The role of the state is to protect public health. However, after the 2009 swine flu epidemic and the scandal of the Pandremix vaccine that caused narcolepsy, many have begun to question it.

In the swine flu case, the state took an executive decision to purchase and distribute a costly, largely untested vaccine in the interest of securing national health. The resulting scandal raised harsh criticism of the Finnish government for causing mistrust, not only in the government’s benevolence, but also in the effectiveness and safety of vaccinations.

For a large group of anti-vaxxers the refusal to vaccinate constitutes their entire belief system.

The anti-vaccination movement is suspicious of whether the motives of big corporations are to protect individual health or confined to selfishly growing the health care market in search of profits. This suspicion is likely fed by the prediction that the vaccine market will grow to 61 billion dollars by 2020.

Some anti-vaxxers, like the Amish, ground their view on specific religious beliefs. Others, such as anti-vaxxers in India, fear that vaccinations are a government ploy to control Muslims.

For a large group of anti-vaxxers the refusal to vaccinate constitutes their entire belief system. A great number of anti-vaxxers are striving to live in a “natural” way, believing that diseases have been eradicated mostly due to good hygiene and better diets. They believe that living “naturally” will result in a healthy life.

The movement is fuelled by the desperation of parents who are convinced that vaccinations caused their children’s autism. Others cite cases of children suffering from narcolepsy as a result of the Pandremix vaccine as reasons for their anti-vaccine stance.

For anti-vaxxers, the pursuit of individual health outweighs public health. At the same time, pro-vaccination parents feel that the anti-vaccination movement is endangering the health of their children.

How can this movement that defies medical authority be explained?

Two parents launched an appeal for people to vaccinate after their 5-week-old baby died of whooping cough in Australia last year. Some patients even refuse to share the same waiting room with unvaccinated children.

Doctors are baffled as to how the recent outbreaks of measles as well as deaths caused by whooping cough seem to have almost no effect on the beliefs of anti-vaxxers. How can this movement that defies medical authority be explained?

Health as a problem of the individual

I argue that Healthism can be divided into two camps. ‘Secular Healthism’ is about citizens trying to live according to the state-imposed health regulations. Here doctors represent the highest authority when it comes to information about what is best for our health.

In ‘Fundamentalist Healthism’ the issue becomes more of a religion. Here beliefs about health become more personal and absolute. As health becomes what constitutes salvation in religion, health fundamentalists formulate essential beliefs as to how to achieve a healthy life.

There is an element of religious moral here.

Within this context, things that are believed to be dangerous to health become equivalent to mortal sins in religion and must be avoided at all costs. There is an element of religious moral here, with an unhealthy lifestyle representing a deadly sin that can be redeemed by a return to a healthy life.

The process of secularisation has changed the way in which death is viewed in society. If individuals adopt a secular approach to life, void of traditional religious authority, they supposedly no longer believe in life after death. If death is to be the ultimate end, living a healthy life and avoiding death becomes the most important act in life.

Fundamentalist ‘Healthism’

The main objective in the doctrine of Healthism is that individuals achieve ‘health’. This is the objective of both the state and the individual, which fits well under the notion of Secular Healthism.

Fundamentalist Healthism emerges when individual views and the state’s view as to how health is attained diverge from each other. We are currently seeing health movements surfacing that hold beliefs that are completely at odds with the state’s when it comes to what is ‘safe’ and ‘dangerous’ for health.

I would argue that the current anti-vaccination movement constitutes a form of health fundamentalism. Torkel Brekke defines fundamentalism as ‘the struggle of religious groups and individuals to halt and reverse what is seen as the negative side of modernity’.

It is also a reaction against the secularisation of society. Modernity is being accused of undermining tradition, pushing religion out of the public sphere.

The fundamentalist health movements, such as the anti-vaccination movement, reject secular authority by challenging the authority of medicine when it comes to what is believed to be good for health. The advocates in the movement react to modernity in ways that manifest themselves in the form of distrust and animosity towards big pharmaceutical corporations and the medical establishment.

The absence of God is filled by the belief in a healthy life.

Finally, there is a common interest in returning to ‘the way things were’ or ‘a natural way of life’. It incorporates a lot of traditionalism that blames the modern world for the rise in health conditions and diseases, such as autism and narcolepsy.

There is a distinctive rise in health movements under which alternative realities emerge. There are competing conceptions of health that are in conflict with state regulations. In these conceptions ‘optimal health’ becomes compatible to ‘salvation’ in religion.

The absence of God is filled by the belief in a healthy life. The ways in which this ersatz religion is practiced is however no longer attached to the state.

The fact that doctors do not know what causes for example autism, mean that people are left in a state of uncertainty. Some people solve this by creating their own set of beliefs that give them a sense of certainty.

Were it a matter of making people believe in the science behind vaccines, the state would not have such a hard time with anti-vaxxers. However, as the beliefs of the anti-vaccination movement are almost religious in nature, appealing to common sense has little effect. Thus there is little we can do about this new form of fundamentalism.

Astrid Aminoff is a PhD Candidate at the University of Lapland. Her research interests include fundamentalist health movements. 

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