'Crazymothers' Want You to Stop Calling Them 'Anti-Vaxxers'

A person holding a syringe
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

A group of people opposed to vaccinations has requested that media stop referring to them as "anti-vax." Instead, they would prefer to be called "vaccine risk aware." 

On Dec. 1, an anti-vaccine group called the Crazymothers raised its plea on Twitter and Instagram, asserting that the term anti-vaxxer is "derogatory, inflammatory, and marginalizes both women and their experiences." In response, many social media users chimed in with their own alternative labels for the group, including "plague enthusiasts," "polio fanciers," "pro-disease" and "patient zero."

In response to this feedback and subsequent media coverage, the Crazymothers posted a screenshot of a HuffPost article along with the hashtag "#IHitANerve."

The Crazymothers' founder, Hillary Simpson, frequently captions posts with the hashtag #DoYourResearch; so, in that spirit, here are the basics about vaccine safety.

Long story short, the main risks to be aware of are those associated with not vaccinating. Decades of research shows that vaccines are safe and effective and that serious side effects are rare.

How do vaccines work? 

When invaders such as bacteria or viruses enter the body for the first time, the immune system generates an elite team of proteins called antibodies to help fight off the invasion. Antibodies latch onto unique proteins that hang off the invaders, known as antigens, and either destroy the pathogen themselves or call in other immune cells to help. The immune system remembers how to build these antibodies long after the initial infection clears, enabling the body to fend off those same type of bugs should they ever launch another attack.

Unfortunately, when a completely unfamiliar antigen enters the body, the immune system may take several days to build up its antibody army. Particularly nasty bugs, like the measles virus, can overwhelm the immune system while its defenses are down.

That's why we have vaccines. 

Vaccines contain dead or weakened pathogens that cannot cause infection but do kick the immune system into gear. Once the vaccine enters the body, the immune system produces antibodies as if it's fighting an actual infection. If a vaccinated person later encounters the antigen attached to a real microbe, their body already knows how to quickly ramp up its production of the antibodies needed to fight the infection 

Over the past two decades, childhood vaccines have saved the lives of 732,000 U.S. children and prevented more than 300 million kids from getting sick, according to a 2014 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  

Are vaccines safe? 

A recent statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) put it best: "Vaccines are safe. Vaccines are effective. Vaccines save lives."

Like all medicinal products, vaccines carry some risk of side effects, but nearly 90% of these are not serious, according to the CDC. A 2011 report from the National Academy of Medicine backs this claim, noting that in more than 1,000 studies of vaccines, only rarely did patients experience severe reactions, such as seizures, inflammation of the brain, and fainting.. 

More than 20 scientific studies confirm that no link exists between the MMR vaccine (for measles, mumps and rubella) and the development of autism, according to the CDC. The study that originally suggested such an association has been retracted and repeatedly discredited. 

The MMR vaccine has legitimately been linked to fevers, and in extreme cases, fever-triggered seizures. About 1 in every 3,000 to 4,000 children experiences these seizures after being vaccinated, according to the 2011 report from the National Academy of Medicine. 

The rotavirus vaccine has been linked to a serious intestinal disorder called intussusception, but in a 2014 study, scientists found that only 1 in 65,000 vaccinated children develops the condition. Other vaccines may cause mild reactions, like the vague, "flu-like symptoms" you get after getting a flu shot, but these side effects hardly compare to catching the infection itself.

Why vaccinate? 

Because vaccines work. 

Following the advent of the chickenpox vaccine, cases of the disease fell about 80% over the following decade, according to a 2012 study. Before that vaccine existed, about 4 million people caught chickenpox in the U.S. every year, and among those, 11,000 had to be hospitalized and 100 died, according to the Immunization Action Coalition.

After the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was introduced, the rate of HPV infection among teen girls fell by 56% over the next four years, according to a 2013 study. The rotavirus vaccine has prevented 65,000 U.S. children from being hospitalized with the disease since 2006, according to a 2011 study.

What's more, vaccinating against one disease could bolster your immune system against others. A 2019 study found that catching the actual measles virus wipes the immune system's "memory" of other antigens it has already encountered. In fact, before the measles vaccine was introduced, in the 1960s, an estimated 50% of childhood deaths were associated with infections that kids caught after surviving a bout of measles, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Science. The vaccine, in contrast, defends against the measles virus without damaging the body's defenses against other infection.

Unfortunately, due to a dip in vaccinations, the number of measles cases has increased by more than 280% since 2018, according to the World Health Organization. That means hundreds of thousands of people who caught the virus this year may now bear the brunt of secondary infections as well. 

Who are the Crazymothers, anyway?  

Founded in 2018, the Crazymothers have just over 1,000 followers on Twitter and about 18,000 on Instagram. The group recently hosted an event in Washington to "raise awareness to the current epidemic of chronic health conditions, injuries and death from vaccination." Nearly 3,000 people attended, according to a Crazymothers Instagram post. 

The group sells merchandise and offers "expert" advice on its website. The T-shirts depict anti-vaccine moms as superheroes, and these "experts" raise concerns about specific ingredients found in vaccines and the methods by which vaccines are produced. 

The efforts of groups like this are a problem, because getting vaccinated doesn't just help the person stuck with the needle; it also protects infants and many people with weak immune systems who cannot be vaccinated at all. Vaccines ensure that fewer cases of the disease occur, and therefore, those without the means to defend themselves are more likely to stay safe and healthy. Anti-vaccine groups like the Crazymothers aim to make vaccination optional, which would place these vulnerable populations at risk, according to the APP.  

The Crazymothers may prefer the term "vaccine risk aware," but in reality, unvaccinated children face far greater health risks than those who do get vaccinated. Meanwhile, the vulnerability to disease of unvaccinated kids places others at risk. The fewer people who get vaccinated, the more people will contract perfectly preventable diseases.

To learn more about vaccines, check out the Live Science page dedicated to the topic. 

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly noted that 4,000 people in the U.S. used to catch the chickenpox each year, when the true number was 4 million. The statistic was updated on Dec. 6. 

Originally published on Live Science. 

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Nicoletta Lanese
Channel Editor, Health

Nicoletta Lanese is the health channel editor at Live Science and was previously a news editor and staff writer at the site. She holds a graduate certificate in science communication from UC Santa Cruz and degrees in neuroscience and dance from the University of Florida. Her work has appeared in The Scientist, Science News, the Mercury News, Mongabay and Stanford Medicine Magazine, among other outlets. Based in NYC, she also remains heavily involved in dance and performs in local choreographers' work.