anti-vaccination follow-up

People who shop at farmers’ markets are supremely health conscious. Would their decision to vaccinate or not be guided by symbolic and associative thinking around what is “foreign” to our system?

Two things happened since my last post and market exhibit that demand a post-scrip to the vaccination story.  First, I was asked for details on the discussions that took place at the market. Second, a local e-zine published a brief article generously borrowing from my original research and presentation of the issue. The post provoked a tsunami of hostile and confrontational comments.

blog To article

This gives me an opportunity to position what I do in my community animation at The Stop’s Wychwood Barns’ Farmers’ Market and how it informed my approach to this sensitive topic.

Why pose the vaccination question in a farmers market?

Market supporters wrestle with each decision on what goes into their bodies. They understand food choices impact two overlapping issues.  One is the well-being of the individual and the other the well-being of a local food supply based on environmentally sustainable farming and the vitality of farm life. Above all, the majority of shoppers are there to invest in community networks and the local economy.

Given that market shopping reinforces how the health of the individual is inseparable from that of the environment and community: How do these consumers make the decision to vaccinate or not? Using the market’s atmosphere of trust and goodwill, I offered individuals who mistrust vaccination the time to air their anxiety and unwind their thinking in the context of an exhibit on the local roots of the anti-vaccination movement. Further, I encouraged exchange between those who feared and shunned vaccination and supporters of the practice.  To “put a face” on social media to potential victims of vaccination is abstract. To hear the testimony of a neighbor is infinitely more convincing.


Why bring history into the question?

I chose to highlight that the anti-vaccination movement from its seminal moment exploited anxiety around the interweaving of human, plant and animal biology. This was a cultural touchstone a century ago as it is again today.  A secondary focus was the spread of disease in city districts where high concentrations of opposition to compulsory vaccination existed. I presented a map created a century ago by the public health workers to prove the correlation between the two phenomena.

Using history, I was able to present the argument against anti-vaccination in an oblique manner. My exhibit focused on both the magical and fearful thinking behind anti-vaccination messages of the past and the sad lesson of this having swayed Torontonians in our district a century ago.


Poll Results 

Do you believe vaccination can have adverse effects?

Yes = 22 No = 20 (many qualified the “Yes” with comment that benefit far outweighs risk)

Did you opt out?  Yes = 7  No = 27

Highlights of Discussions at the Exhibit

People often resist vaccination based on the conviction that they know what’s best for them. Drawing cause and effect relationships based on what they observed or experienced after eating something or taking a remedy, they favour the experiential and anecdotal knowledge typical at farmers markets in discussion between food vendors and their clients. This aspect of the market makes it invaluable to start-up chefs and food growers as it provides a constant feed-back loop on their offerings. The valuing of direct experience and face to face encounter may also draw individuals with this learning style towards a certain kind of evidence of the dangers of vaccines.

In this category, a middle aged man observed that his elderly father had been vaccinated against tuberculosis and had subsequently been very ill. At least four others in the same age category talked about the flu vaccine in the same light. For some the results conclusively pointed to the virulence or the inadequacy of the vaccine: “I got the shot and then I came down with the flu.” For others it was an open and perplexing question: “How come I got the vaccine and still got sick this year?”

A handful of people emphasized their dedication to building their body’s natural resistance to illness through diet. Several parents talked about breast feeding as key to protecting their infant’s defenses against communicable diseases and as a “natural” alternative to inoculation. Some worried about the toxicity of the preservatives in the vaccines while others said they couldn’t make sense of the strategy of introducing the disease into their child’s system as a prevention against the disease itself.

Several asked about the dangers of contracting measles. “Is it true that you can get it from contact with an environment recently occupied by an infected person?”

Others wanted to discuss the vaccination question as it related to power and politics. They talked about how they had sought out “the truth” through independent internet research.  At the most extreme end of this category was a woman who believed that vaccination was part of a conspiracy to limit world population. Two older middle-aged women spoke passionately about having been convinced through reading a book by anti-vaccinationists “Dr. Susan Humphries M.D.” In general, a mistrust of mainstream medical expertise and belief in the corrupting influence of “Big-Pharma” influenced these individuals.


Older market shoppers spoke of their intimate knowledge of the benefits of vaccination from family members and friends having died or suffered from such diseases as polio that are now preventable.  Some talked about the visible scarring from inoculation that was taken for granted and even regarded, in some parts of the world, as a badge of pride.

Parents with children in tow or pushing strollers were among those looking intently at the poll results. Several explained that they didn’t trust themselves to be able to have a detached discussion and very forcefully stuck the post-it notes to indicate that they opted to vaccinate. A large number of parents shared their unease with the repeated multiple vaccinations recommended for the very young. They described how they always observed for effects after each round and worried about how the potent cocktail of vaccines might tax their children’s health. Many would have preferred to choose a schedule with staggered immunization for each disease to let them better see the effects of individual vaccinations.

While these parents seem to perceive their offspring as a delicately biologically calibrated entity to be constantly and closely monitored, older ones fondly remembered the days when large families and tight communities dealt with classic childhood illnesses in a more casual way. In “smallpox parties” mothers would group all the children who had not yet had the disease with several who were infectious. With this grass-roots inoculation the children of the same family and friend network were effectively quarantined, nursed and immunized in a timely and efficient way.

People who were middle aged or older remember suffering through the full gamut of communicable childhood diseases including measles: Were today’s single-children being molly-coddled? Were these diseases more dangerous now? Why such a scare over a North-American outbreak of mild measles cases?

Councillor Joe Mihevc mentioned that when asked by families to sign the application to have children excluded from the compulsory vaccination on grounds of conscience, he invariably gives a lecture in support of vaccination. In response to questions he answered that, to his knowledge, Ward 21 schools do not harbor greater than average number of students who are un-vaccinated.

At least ten shoppers identified themselves as health professionals, half of these as physicians. They were unequivocally pro-vaccination and highly interested in my motives in striking up discussion about the topic at the market. The question of how people constructed and shared knowledge of disease in the past as compared to how it is done now in the information age was a popular topic of discussion when they were at the table with other community members.

Contrast between market and e-zine discussions

In “A brief history of anti-vaccination in Toronto”, the writer presents key points that I discovered through original research and had published five days earlier. These are: 1. The date of photographed rally on the steps of City Hall as it was related to an advertisement targeted at veterans. 2. The Anti-Vaccination League’s strategy to deploy topical combat references taking advantage of the presence of First World War vets recruited to their ranks and how these were echoed at a Board of Control meeting. 3. How that same November The Toronto Daily Star countered anti-vaccinationists’ propaganda with in-depth photo features on Connaught Laboratories farm. 4. How the opposition to compulsory vaccination was most prominent and most discussed by Public Health as endemic in this north-west suburban district of Earlscourt and Wychwood-Bracondale.

I chose to highlight these aspects of the anti-vaccination movement to set up the market discussion. As with all other “back to the park’ blog-posts, it looked at how the place memory of the St.Clair mid-town district is found in century-old press photography, news stories and art. The issue of vaccination neatly brought together most of the blog’s topics: urban space, food, health, art and community.

In contrast, the e-zine used my research to “stir the pot” prompting a wave of knee-jerk utterances, accusations and counter-accusations.  To the writer’s credit, on receiving my complaint, he admitted that he had used my research without proper attribution and squeezed an ad hoc link to my post. Is it petty of me to think that it would have been easy for him to have to set up a constructive framework for online commentary by describing how the question was framed for discussion at the market? Perhaps I need some distance from the anti-vaccination tempest.