Pro-vaccine parents targeted on social media

As state leaders grapple with repealing the religious exemptions for vaccinations option, some pro-vaccine parents say they’ve become victims of targeted harassment, online bullying, mom-shaming and intimidation.

When Stacy Mintzer Herlihy co-wrote the book “Your Baby’s Best Shot,” she never thought her pro-vaccine advocacy would be targeted on social media. She received a Facebook post that read, “You are misinformed and a complete IDIOT!! Do some research you stupid freedom wanna-be killer!”

The post writer drops a couple f-bombs, too.

When asked if she feels threatened in any way, Herlihy, the founder of the group New Jersey Parents for Vaccines, said, “I feel more wary, more watchful. I worry that some people may choose to go further and possibly engage in harmful actions against vaccine advocates. I hope this won’t be the case.”

“I would like to make sure that all kids of all communities in New Jersey are protected from vaccine-preventable diseases,” she continued. “These are very bad diseases. Measles has been shown to destroy the immune system for years.”

Sue Collins, co-founder the New Jersey Coalition for Vaccination Choice, responded to the online attacks.

“I mean, I try to avoid the social media aspects of things as much as possible,” she said. “We know this is a very emotional issue and a complex issue, and I think it’s easy for people on both sides — I mean, attacks are coming from both sides — it’s easy to hide behind the anonymity of social media when you’re not having a face-to-face conversation and kind of let those emotions and anger and frustrations show through.”

As of last month, the state health department reported 19 confirmed cases of measles. Nurse practitioner Lori Boyle volunteers with the group Nurses Who Vaccinate to prevent such infectious diseases and to dispel myths about vaccines.

Boyle says after she presented at an immunization practices forum, she too became the target of hostile vaccination choice advocates.

Boyle teaches health care providers how to deal with those who spread information that contradicts the medical profession’s conclusions and endorsement of vaccines.

“The best thing to do is to try not to internalize it,” said Boyle. “And step away when you need to because sometimes when you get too engaged it does get very heated and very emotional.”

It got heated and emotional again last week after the full Assembly approved a bill to end religious exemptions for vaccines in a nearly party-line vote.

“This bill forces parents to vaccinate their children against their religious beliefs or they will have to take their children out of school,” said Republican Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips. “That is an unconscionable choice.”

The protest became deafening as the Senate considered the bill, and the upper house decided to table it because supporters feared they lacked the votes for passage.

State health department statistics show religious exemptions for vaccinating kids have risen to nearly 30,000 in New Jersey. Those who support eliminating religious exemptions see that number as creating too much risk to public health.

“I would never do anything to hurt people that have issues,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat. “But it’s unfair to be characterizing this as that we’re doing something that’s wrong. We’re actually doing the right thing, which is protecting the health of this state.”

The Senate has until Jan. 13 when the session ends to vote on the bill to ban religious exemptions for vaccines. Bill supporters say the victor in this fight should be public health, not the loudest voice.