'I Used To Be an Anti-Vaxxer'

I didn't question vaccines growing up. My three brothers and I received all the routine vaccinations and it was never a scary event. I only dreaded them because it might hurt. The only vaccine I missed was the meningitis shot. I was 18 and going to college and I chose not to get it because I was scared of needles. I didn't even know that anti-vaxxers existed until I was 25.

When my husband and I started trying to get pregnant in 2014 and it took two years before we conceived in 2016. During that time, we stumbled across an anti-vaccination documentary series that was about nine hours long and we decided to watch it. I was sold after that. It said that everything under the sun is caused by vaccines. After that, there was no way I was ever going to vaccinate my child.

Then, a series of events made me question western medicine as a whole. I had visited a fertility doctor and tried different treatments that failed. So, I investigated natural methods and started a paleo diet called the "auto immune protocol diet." In that cycle I got pregnant. When my daughter was born in 2017, I began to see that there was something wrong with her breathing. I went to doctor after doctor and begged for a sleep study. I was told I was just an anxious new mom. I finally got a sleep study and it showed she had severe sleep apnoea and so she was transferred to ICU the next morning. That solidified my distrust in western medicine.

When my daughter was about 18 months old I decided to be "brave" and post my views about vaccines on Facebook. It just took off. I was not aware that there was an entire world of anti-vaxxers online, so I did not expect it. I was a member of Larry Cook's anti-vax Facebook group before it was banned as well as a number of other anti-vax groups online.

The other anti-vaxxers and I started "friend requesting" each other, and soon we were all maxing out our 5,000 friend limit. Everything I posted got shared over and over again like I was some authority on the subject of vaccines, when I wasn't. I was also singled out by pro-vaxxers as the person to hate. The "disinformation dozen" are the 12 anti-vaxxers who are not medical experts but have large followings and share 65 percent of anti-vaxxer content. Myself and my anti-vaxxer friends would follow them and circulate the content they shared.

In my experience, there were anti-vaxxers who were scared. I felt like I fell into that category. I was scared and I didn't want my kid to die from a vaccine. Then there were ex-vaxxers who believed that something happened after their kid was vaccinated. Whether that was a day, a month or a year later. They stopped vaccinations after that. Then you have conspiracy theorists who believe that famous people are actually lizards.

We did skip all my daughter's routine vaccinations, against our pediatrician's advice. Although we did give her a vitamin K shot. I did not know at the time, but many anti-vaxxers are also against the vitamin K shot. They later blamed health issues my daughter had on that shot. Looking back, I lived in this fear of things like tetanus all the time, but there was a tetanus shot available.

Heather Simpson used to be an anti-vaxxer
Heather Simpson was a vocal anti-vaxxer. When she changed her beliefs, she was attacked online by the anti-vaxxer community. Heather Simpson

My parents supported me but my brothers were somewhat embarrassed by me and my extended family were frustrated and felt judged by me. That was fair. I would say pretty harsh things about pro-vaxxers online.

I wore a "measles costume" for Halloween in October 2019 as an attention grab. I knew I would make the pro-vaxxers mad. The confusing part was that dressing up as measles for Halloween would seem that I'm scared of measles. I had to word it in a stupid way, which was: "was trying to think of the least scary thing I could be for Halloween... So I became the measles." It was extremely dumb, and, it looks more like chickenpox than the measles. I didn't even do it right.

Heather Simpson used to be an anti-vaxxer
In October 2019, Heather Simpson posted this picture online of a Halloween costume. The image went viral. Heather Simpson

I thought it would get shared a little bit on Facebook, but I woke up the next morning and it was getting shared 50 times a minute and I ended up on Reddit and all over the news. The next week, there was a measles outbreak in Samoa, so it was horrible timing.

In February 2020, I decided to update people online on my beliefs. I said I was still anti-vax and vaccine hesitant but I was still studying and I would update people as I went. I also shared that I believed that public schools had the right to mandate vaccines. I felt it was entitled that anti-vaxxers wanted free public school but they wanted it their way. I said I didn't think we should get rid of all vaccines but we should make them safer.

The anti-vaxxers lost their minds. They were horrified. I had 8,000 people in my community and they all turned on me in a day. It's not just the online harassment and insults and threats, it's losing your entire world and community. They unfriended me en masse. I was called a fake, told I was planted by the government, that my child was fully vaccinated, I was called a liar, a b**** and c***. I truly believe they wanted me to die that day. It makes me panic to think about it.

It was that week that I realized that anti-vaxxers and pro-vaxxers are just people and people suck sometimes. The pro-vaxxers had wished death on me too. You can be a bully on either side.

In February, I had surgery for endometriosis, and the few anti-vaxxers I was still friends with were telling me I was taking the easy way out and just needed to start eating better. I felt so guilty.

Then COVID-19 hit and those same anti-vaxxers I was still friends with on Facebook were very anti-masks. It added to my feeling that they were very entitled. All they had to do was put on a mask. They valued their freedom more than being able to potentially save someone else's life. I got really grossed out by it.

I started reading more about vaccines and how unlikely a reaction is. I started thinking: "What if I'm wrong?" Then, I began talking to more doctors and scientists and being welcomed into pro-vaccination online communities. I realized there are certain facts about vaccines that I can't get around.

For example, I saw anti-vaxxers talk about dangerous chemicals in vaccines, like formaldehyde. There is no more than 0.02 mg of formaldehyde in any dose of a vaccine. Any average two-month-old baby would already have 1.1 mg of formaldehyde circulating in their body. You can't get around that fact.

I had friends who passed on COVID to others because they refused to wear a mask. I couldn't live with harming someone else. I got my flu shot in January 2021, which I think helped pro-vaxxers see that I was serious. Then, when it came time to get my COVID shot, I took it to protect my daughter who is too young to have it. I had one Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine dose on April 16, 2021, and the next day I reacted with itchiness and a migraine, so the hospital recommended that I not get the second shot and so did my allergist and my general internal medicine doctor. I was a little bit disappointed to have a reaction to the first vaccine, but I was not that surprised. I have had multiple allergic reactions to random things in the past. But, I was disappointed that I was unable to get my second shot. There have been anti-vaxxers who have responded to my COVID vaccine reaction by saying things like, "you reacted and yet you're still recommending it?" Yes I am. Because reactions, although rare, do happen. I am doing perfectly fine now.

I am around 70 percent protected against contracting the virus. I feel it helps people to know that if they can get fully vaccinated they should, so they can help people who can't, like me.

Heather Simpson used to be an anti-vaxxer
In April 2021, Heather Simpson received her first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. Heather Simpson

My views on vaccines now are that most kids will maintain a good life if they are vaccinated. My husband and I are working on catching my daughter up on the vaccines she missed, but my husband is still very vaccine hesitant, so we have agreed to a schedule with her pediatrician. This has affected my relationship with my husband a little, in that he wants us to be on the same page, and clearly we're not. But it's important that we're on the same with our daughter, which we are.

I was reading screenshots of all the posts I used to put up on social media and I am embarrassed. I thought of myself as such an authority. I've started fresh accounts on social media now I am pro-vaccination. Now, I want to finish my degree and I'm trying to figure out what would be best to help advocate for science. Perhaps public health or nursing.

I would tell anti-vaxxers now just to be careful what they read on the internet. The morning I was supposed to get my flu shot I wasn't feeling well so I cancelled it. I began spitting up blood later that day from a reaction to antibiotics. Had I gotten my flu shot, I would have blamed that on the flu shot and posted that online.

I would also tell anti-vaxxers to realize that their actions affect everyone else. Maybe you won't be hurt by COVID but the man you pass at the grocery store could end up dying. We have to work together and when you go deep into these conspiracy theories they do make you feel special, but people don't turn into lizards. That's not real. Most doctors and scientists are good people.

But I don't think I regret my past. I feel that because of the position I was in, I can be more impactful now I'm a pro-vaxxer. People can look at me and maybe think, "she was such a staunch anti-vaxxer and she changed. If she can change, maybe I can change."

Heather Simpson lives in Texas with her husband and daughter. Formerly an anti-vaxxer, she is now openly pro-vaccination. You can find out more about her at heatherbrookesimpson.com or follow her on Facebook at Back to the Facts.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.