In May 2016, Jill Promoli put her two-year-old twin sons Jude and Thomas down for a nap in their home outside Toronto, she told CNN. Though Jude had a low-grade fever, he “was laughing and singing” as he went to sleep. 

Two hours later, when Promoli went to check on him, he was dead. 

When an autopsy came back showing he had died of the flu, she knew something had to be done. According to CNN, Promoli has since started a campaign that advocates for flu prevention, including vaccines.

However as she started her campaign, Promoli began receiving a barrage of online attacks from self-proclaimed “anti-vaxxers,” or people opposed to mandatory vaccines, she told CNN. 

Promoli said the messages were deeply hurtful, cutting her when she was struggling with her son’s passing. Some said vaccines had killed her son. But some went deeper, saying she had murdered her son and covered it up with the story. The worst ones, she told CNN, were people claiming she advocated for flu shots “so that other children would die from the shots and their parents would be miserable like she was.”

The vaccine debate has swept the nation in a story where concerned parents reckon with science and what they believe has happened to their children, with name-calling and finger-pointing on every end of the spectrum. 

Meghan McCain, a columnist and daughter of the late Arizona Senator John McCain, tweeted in April 2019. “Dear anti-vaxers, your stupidity and arrogance are putting the lives of children in danger!” the tweet read. “It is nothing short of abominable.”

User heidi0101 responded with lines of profanity: “F**k all of you and your fear,” she said. “shut [sic] the f**k up until you know what it’s like to not be allowed to make decisions about your own child.” 

From either stance, the distaste for the other was wildly apparent.

Close to home

Vaccines, according to the Center for Disease Control, are “[products] that [stimulate] a person’s immune system to produce immunity to a specific disease, protecting the person from that disease.”

Dr. Joseph A. McBride is a physician with training in adult and pediatric infectious diseases at University of Wisconsin Health. He discussed how vaccines affect the human body and immune system.

“Essentially, what you are doing is you are exposing the body to a germ, oftentimes a similar germ that’s less virulent or dangerous, or the same germ that’s been altered in a way so it can’t be as pathologically dangerous. [This is] so the body can recognize the germs and then combat it upon seeing it a second time in the situation of being exposed,” McBride said. “The vaccine provides the body with a head start, or a warm-up period, where they can have the immunology prepped and primed and ready to go. In the situation of true exposure in the future, the body is ready to react to it immediately, rather than developing immunity and waiting for that [to occur], which most often results in infection.”

There are vaccinations for hundreds of diseases, but not everyone needs every available vaccine. McBride noted that some vaccines have more relevance, especially to the college-aged demographic.

McBride was particularly concerned about the meningitis vaccine.

“Prior to going away to college, military or a young adult working, adult recommendations include the meningitis vaccine. Meningitis is caused by a number of different organisms, but a more common one is called meningococcus, or neisseria meningitidis, and there’s a lot of different serostrains or serotypes of this germ. Usually, most people get vaccinated with one vaccine that covers four different types (A, C, W, and Y) of meningococcus,” McBride said. 

He added that the concern is UW-centric: there have been outbreaks on campus already. 

As of late, a new strain of meningitis has been predominantly found in the U.S., serotype B. There was an outbreak of meningitis type B just a few years ago at UW, McBride said. 

“So, a vaccine that would be really recommended would be a meningococcal B vaccine, which many people don’t have by the time they go to college or more generally young adulthood,” he said. 

Dr. William Kinsey, University Health Services Director of Medical Services, and UW-Madison Chief Health Officer, noted the importance of vaccines, and how UHS offers them to protect students. 

According to Kinsey, UHS offers influenza vaccines to students each year for no cost. UHS offers vaccination clinics at various locations on campus where no appointments are needed and walk-ins are welcome. 

“We also offer all the other traditional vaccines in our Community Health department at UHS,” Kinsey said, noting that the other traditional vaccines do come with a fee.

McBride also discussed the human papillomavirus vaccine. He said that many “young, healthy adults” choose not to get this specific vaccine — which protects against the sexually transmitted disease — or aren’t aware they should get it. 

Additionally, McBride mentioned hepatitis vaccines, with Kinsey also suggesting tetanus vaccines, among others.

“Long story short, there are many vaccines that would benefit a lot of people, especially young, healthy 18-to-22-year-olds, taken on an individual basis to meet their individual needs. And the CDC really tries to make these recommendations across the board for most people, and I think they’re really accurate from a public health standpoint,” McBride said. “Nevertheless, you really have to talk to an individual to determine what their risks are.”

Developing discord 

Del Bigtree, however, has concerns. Bigtree is the CEO of the anti-vaccination group Informed Consent Action Network. He rose to prominence in the movement after producing the film “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe.” The film discusses an alleged cover-up by the CDC of research that suggested African-American males under 3 years of age who received the MMR (measles, mumps rubella) vaccine were at higher risk for autism. 

Bigtree said that his film was kicked out of the Tribeca Film Festival. He noted that this “ended up being great,” though, as it proffered international coverage and attention. He claims there had been bomb threats in theaters showing the film and medical personnel who were threatened if they wanted to watch it. According to the Immunization Coalition, the film made over $1 million.

Bigtree said that what led him down the anti-vaccination route wasn’t an inherent distrust of science.

“I was a producer on a daytime talk show, The Doctors, for six years. I was a part of producing one of the first ever medical talk shows, won an Emmy award working for CBS, doing nothing but celebrating the best that science has to offer, the most cutting-edge techniques. I scrubbed into ORs and stood with a camera and shot miracle workers doing amazing surgeries,” Bigtree said. “So to begin with, I’m a fan of science. I want to make that clear, that what brings me to this issue isn’t a crystal ball.”

Bigtree brought up a multitude of concerns regarding the safety of vaccines, links to autism, government cover-ups of research and the silencing of voices like his that lead to an alternative pathway. He said that perhaps most notably, many scientific breakthroughs started with scientists going against the grain, like those speaking out against vaccinations.

Amber Psket, the co-founder of vaccine-choice group Wisconsin United for Freedom, said that her personal convictions aren’t necessarily what drives her group or those leading it.

“[My] belief regarding vaccines is irrelevant. Wisconsin United for Freedom supports health care choice,” Psket said. “When individuals and parents are not permitted to exercise their human and informed consent rights and are forced to accept a vaccine … against their will, they will speak out to defend their fundamental human rights.”

Psket also noted that public ridicule of vaccine-choice groups has affected her and those she works with, becoming tantamount to bullying and sometimes outright disrespectful.

“Many in government and in the media have ridiculed parents of vaccine injured children and labeled them as ‘anti-vaccine’ or ‘anti-science,’” Psket said. “We have anti-bullying campaigns in our schools and laws against hate speech directed at minorities, and yet it has become socially acceptable to discriminate and verbally attack anyone who questions vaccine safety, including the families and individuals who consented to vaccination and were ultimately harmed by these products.”

As NBC News reported, however, some cases of supposed vaccine-injured children that have become poster cases wind up being something else. 

Evee Clobes, who passed away in March 2019, is featured on billboards in Minnesota with taglines like “HEALTHY BABIES JUST DON’T DIE.” Her mother Caitlin Clobes is now a staunch activist against mandatory vaccines. As she tells it, her daughter passed away 36 hours after a checkup, at which she received multiple vaccinations.

This is a horrific tragedy, one any parent fears. The death of a child, especially a young baby like Evee, is always painful. But, her local medical examiner found something wrong with the narrative at hand.

According to an autopsy conducted by first responders, vaccines had nothing to do with Evee’s death: she was found to have accidentally suffocated while sleeping with her mother. 

But, Clobes’ claims are not the only ones to have been deemed inaccurate. Over the last dozen years, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, established to compensate people injured by vaccines, has received approximately two claims for every million immunizations involving the measles vaccine, according to The New York Times

Only around half of those claims were dismissed because the program found evidence that “showed the vaccine was not responsible for the injury.”

Amy Pisani, Executive Director for the nonprofit Vaccinate Your Family, discussed how she approaches those with concerns about vaccines.

“Sadly, the discourse around vaccines has been devolving in recent years. While we have been working alongside families who believe vaccines cause harm there has always been a common ground and civility in the discussions,” Pisani said. “Our organization firmly believes that people have the right to ask questions about vaccines and we treat those who ask questions with dignity, offering science based responses.”

Moving the needle 

Bigtree said that when it came to silencing voices, his own was involved, noting that it recently became harder to see his film and where he was coming from. According to Mashable, it was taken off of Amazon earlier this year.

“Does that sound American?” Bigtree said. “As far as I’m concerned, any society that started censoring and burning books … when you take down the largest library in the world [Amazon], and say they cannot have a movie like ‘Vaxxed’ on it, you have a real problem.”

McBride said it is important to remember that immunization rates are falling in Wisconsin, and some sort of action should be taken soon.

Certain states, according to McBride, such as Mississippi, California and West Virginia, only offer medical exemptions to legally mandated vaccines. He called those states “on the high front.” Wisconsin, though, offers a medical exemption, a religious exemption and a personal conviction exemption, he said. 

“Essentially, what that [personal conviction exemption] says is that someone can sign this and say ‘I have really strong feelings, and I don’t want to have my child vaccinated,’ and then they can go into school,” McBride said.

McBride detailed that the majority of children who go into school without complete vaccines are using the personal conviction exemption. The minority of people have these medical recommendations to not get vaccinated. 

Stephanie Schauer, Immunization Program Manager with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, confirmed that immunization rates are down in the Wisconsin school setting.

“5.3% of children had a waiver … and only 1.1% of children were completely unvaccinated last school year,” Schauer said. “However, it is important to note that the waiver rate has increased over the last 20 years, and this means that fewer children are fully protected.”

Pisani said looking at where information comes from is key when researching the subject of vaccines.

“With the proliferation of disinformation on the internet and social media, it is imperative that individuals seeking information about vaccines … conduct due diligence to determine the source of information,” Pisani said. “Question the citing of research offered by those who are opposed to vaccines to determine if the studies they quote are published in legitimate science based journals rather than basement publishers.”

And that questioning may very well be life-saving. Katie Bellovich, aged three, developed a mild fever in March 2000. While she showed no other symptoms of any particular illness, her mother was concerned and kept her home from school the next day.

During that day, Bellovich seemed fine and played happily with her mother, but that changed again the next day. Waking up vomiting with severe abdominal pains, the child showed clear signs of troubled breathing when she went to lay down.

That Thursday morning, with cold hands and a gray face, Bellovich was admitted to a hospital and became lethargic within thirty minutes. Due to blood flow issues, her knees turned black. Doctors found her condition so severe they opened up her chest to conduct manual heart compressions. For an hour, doctors did their best, but Bellovich tragically passed away. 

When an autopsy was conducted, Bellovich had died of muscular inflammation around her heart. The cause? Influenza B, or the flu.

Bellovich hadn’t been vaccinated.