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Former Anti-Vaccine Mom Explains How Movement Pulled Her In, And How She Left

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday. His $1.9 trillion stimulus plan includes money for public education about the COVID-19 vaccines because, yes, coming up with the vaccines in the first place in record time was a huge accomplishment, but they won't have the impact they're supposed to have if not enough people are willing to take them. And the skepticism about the COVID vaccines has taken root and grown because there was a natural incubator inside the broader movement opposed to vaccines.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Today, we're going to hear about one person's experience, what drew her to the anti-vaccination movement and what ultimately led her out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDIA: So I was generally pro-vax (ph) up until I had my baby.

MARTIN: So what happened?

LYDIA: I know, right?

MARTIN: This is Lydia (ph). We're not disclosing her last name at her request. She's worried about backlash because less than a year ago, Lydia decided to leave the anti-vaccination movement. But her story begins in 2008. She was nervous about vaccinating her first child. She ended up doing it anyway.

LYDIA: It was quite traumatic. She screamed and cried, and I felt horrible.

MARTIN: The baby was having a reaction to the shots, which is totally normal, but it didn't feel normal to Lydia.

LYDIA: So, like, I called the public health nurse after being up all night with her. And I was like, listen, like, I just think something's really wrong. She's crying so much, and it's worrying me. She doesn't want to nurse. And she says, I understand. You're a first-time mom. Like, it's really common. She's fine. And I was like, I don't really feel that way. And she's like, well, you know, obviously, if you think it's an emergency, take her to the thing. But I'm telling you, like, she's fine. I just felt very brushed off and, like, written off.

MARTIN: In the end, her daughter was fine, but at the time, Lydia wasn't convinced. And she took her questions to an online forum for new moms. And they had their own answers.

LYDIA: They were like, you know, DTaP can cause cry encephalitis. And it says so right in the insert. And it says, if your baby has high-pitched screaming, that they're no longer a candidate for DTap. And so I was like, wow, that's scary. Like, that's really, really scary. So then you start thinking, like, did I just hurt my - like, did my child have swollen brain? Like, what happened? And they give you an answer that the other people couldn't give you or didn't give you. And so now you don't have any trust because you get an answer, right? You kind of run with that. And...

MARTIN: Well, plus it sounds like the answer the public health nurse gave you is just, like, trust me, you know?

LYDIA: Yeah, trust me and, like, it's fine, but it sticks with you, that horrible fear and feeling.

MARTIN: And that was what did it for Lydia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: After that, she went deep on her own research into vaccines. And for every concern she could conjure, there was some study that seemed to back it up. And that was all the proof she needed not to act.

LYDIA: I think sometimes doing nothing is easier because you don't feel as responsible for the outcome. Where if you give your child a vaccine and they suffer a consequence, that's your fault. Like, a parent would say, I did this to my child. So I think that there's an appeal to inaction that makes a lot of - makes it easy for a lot of parents to not vaccinate their child.

MARTIN: Eight years later, Lydia had a second child and then a third. She hadn't planned on vaccinating them either. And then the pandemic happened. Lydia watched the news about the virus spreading. Then she couldn't find toilet paper at the store. And this apocalyptic chain of events started to unfold in her mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDIA: When a society starts to crumble and everyone is going, you know, broke and you don't know what if all of a sudden, like, we don't have good sanitation anymore? The economy is just going to collapse at any minute because, you know, everyone can't work and stores are closed.

Bad things happen afterwards. Like, when your health care system starts to collapse, then these diseases come back.

MARTIN: Whoa. So, Lydia, you went from no vaccines...

LYDIA: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...To I might need to get every vaccine because the world could collapse.

LYDIA: Yeah. And that's when I really started finding out how wrong I was about a lot of it. I got out of my echo chamber and I was like, that was hard. That is hard. And I see why people shut down when they're challenged because it is a very - cognitive dissonance is such an uncomfortable feeling.

MARTIN: Yeah. Well, you would feel unmoored. You would feel like this whole reality I built up for myself isn't true.

LYDIA: Especially if it kind of becomes a part of your identity for a long time. And there's definitely, like, something to thinking that you've got something figured out that other people don't figure out. Like, I don't know if it's, like, an ego thing or what, but you do feel like - you think you have a cheat code, you know? Like, video games have cheat codes. Like, it's almost, like, thinking like you have this cheat code to keep your kids healthy, to keep your kids from getting autism and allergies and whatever else they - they blame vaccines for everything. I mean, everything is a vaccine's fault to them.

MARTIN: So Lydia has this epiphany, and then she makes vaccination appointments for her kids. But even then, she needed reassurance. She found it from a doctor who posted on TikTok.

Do you remember Lydia?

NICOLE BALDWIN: I absolutely do. She reached out to me on Twitter, I believe.

MARTIN: This is Nicole Baldwin, a pediatrician in Cincinnati, Ohio. And that TikTok video I mentioned, it's her dancing to hip-hop, pointing to facts about vaccines.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

CUPID: (Singing) To the left, to the left, to the left, to the left.

BALDWIN: It seemed like a fun way to get the message across that vaccines just prevent a lot of different diseases, and they don't cause autism. I mean, it was a simple 14-second video, and that's really all that is said.

MARTIN: But it got a huge response...

BALDWIN: Yeah (laughter). It did.

MARTIN: ...Not all of it good.

BALDWIN: No, no. So the video initially went viral - I guess you would call it viral - on TikTok. And so then, of course, I posted it on my Facebook. And Facebook is primarily where I got a huge backlash from the anti-vaccine community. I got death threats on the platform. People called my office and harassed my staff. We had to call the police in because someone threatened to come and shut down our practice at one point.

MARTIN: Do you have any regrets?

BALDWIN: No, not at all. I feel like what happened, although it was a lot of negativity, it also really got people talking. And it got Lydia to find me. I mean, you know, I think if I can help just one person to be more reassured about the safety of vaccines, that's what I'm here for.

MARTIN: How do you combat disinformation in this debate when someone comes to you and says, sure, you, respected doctor, tell me vaccines are safe, but you're part of the establishment?

BALDWIN: Yeah, I think that's - that's a big challenge. And I think that the best we can do is stick to the science and evidence that we know is out there and answer legitimate questions. I think there are definitely people that are questioning, and those people are very reasonable. And then there are people that just want to attack.

MARTIN: Do you think it's fair to call disinformation a public health crisis in this country?

BALDWIN: Absolutely. I really do. And I think that the social media platforms especially need to take some responsibility for what they're allowing on their platforms because it's dangerous. And we're seeing an uptick in vaccine-preventable diseases simply because of all of this misinformation that's out there.

MARTIN: Now, we should say, at this point, Facebook has taken recent steps to fight disinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccines. But the company has struggled to handle broader anti-vaccine misinformation on its platform.

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MARTIN: So here we are today. It's been about a year since Lydia reached out to Dr. Baldwin. Since then, she's gotten all three of her kids up to speed on their vaccinations, and she uses her online presence to try and help vaccine-hesitant parents understand the facts. The whole experience has actually inspired a new career. Lydia started nursing school this month.

LYDIA: It's been totally 100% motivated by this. Like, I want to be able to tell new parents the right way, like, how to handle anti-vax rhetoric, how to, like, dismantle it and see it for what it is without making them feel like they're talked down to or dumb or whatever. Like, I want to be able to reach new parents and have them tell me anything, you know, that they're reading that they're concerned about and kind of scratch the surface of it.

MARTIN: Because that would have helped you and you didn't get that.

LYDIA: Yeah, and it's getting worse. That's the other thing.

MARTIN: And this is where Lydia made this bigger connection between the anti-vaccination movement and our current political moment.

LYDIA: Because the anti-vaccine movement will latch on to whoever will have them. If you watch them on social media and you watch them, like, how they recruit people, they'll just take anybody who will have them. So when I started, it was very motivated by moms wanting to be natural and hippy-like and granola or whatever you want to call it. And now it's been totally infiltrated by right-wingers that, you know, it's a constitutional, like, health freedom movement. And a lot of them believe in, like, conspiracy theories and flat Earth. And it's really changed over the years. And it's scary.

MARTIN: Your eldest child is how old, 12, 13?

LYDIA: She's 12. Yeah.

MARTIN: Twelve. So sort of old enough to have at least some grasp on this decision. Have you talked with her about this?

LYDIA: Yeah, I definitely use it as, like, a lesson. Like, one, that it's OK to say you're wrong and publicly say you're wrong and, two, it's like, make sure you have all the information, even if it's information that makes you uncomfortable.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "ANOTHER DAY (REVISED)")

LYDIA: Ask yourself, you know, before you share anything, is this true?

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "ANOTHER DAY (REVISED)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.