“Infectious: The Strange Past and Surprising Present of Vaccines —and Anti-Vaxxers” is a five-part audio series from the WBUR podcast “Endless Thread” that tells the story of vaccine innovation, hysteria, and the spread of disinformation online. We explore the radicalization of new parents and the creation of a movement that threatens to send us back to the disease-ridden dark ages.
As measles started popping up around the country, we saw the topic of vaccination pop up all around Reddit – from posts in the Legal Advice subreddit about how to navigate family disagreements over vaccination, to posts in the Today I Learned subreddit about immunization techniques in 10th century China. These stories offer a window into how we find ourselves in the midst of a measles outbreak almost 20 years after the disease was eradicated in the United States. We noticed Ethan Lindberger’s Reddit post about getting vaccinated against his parents’ wishes take off, and we knew we were onto something.
Part 1: “Scabs, Pus and Puritans” traces the history of inoculation and vaccination from 10th century China, through colonial times in Massachusetts, to the women’s movement of the 1970s, and up to 2019 in America.
Part 2: “The Flintstone Dilemma” lays out the key arguments of the vaccine-hesitant or -resistant community and looks at how we went from joking about the measles on sitcoms like “The Flintstones” and “The Brady Bunch” in the 1950s, to calling the 2019 measles outbreak a “public health crisis.” This episode features original artwork made by a Redditor. We commissioned it through the Draw For Me subreddit, and the final product was almost as provocative as the episode’s content.
Part 3: “Going Viral” examines the Internet’s role — social media, in particular — in spreading disinformation about vaccines further and faster than ever before. It features a rare interview with the creator of one of the most active anti-vaccine Facebook groups, a conversation with the head of global policy at Facebook, and code written by one of WBUR’s developers to determine the prevalence of anti-vaccine information on Reddit. The Python script leveraged the pushshift API (https://pushshift.io/) to scour Reddit for pro- and anti-vaccine posts and then created a spreadsheet that could be examined.
Part 4: “Anatomy of an Outbreak” features on-the-ground reporting from Clark County, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, to better understand the societal pathogens and ideologies that lead to a measles outbreak in the region. From hesitant parents to concerned public health officials, how does a community work together to prevent future outbreaks from occurring?
Part 5: “Talk to Me” features poignant conversations with two people who have personal experiences with vaccine injury, but have drawn very different conclusions about vaccines as a result. The episode asks and answers the question, given the highly emotional and polarized nature of the debate around vaccines, how do we talk — and listen — to each other in a way that will help keep the general population safe going forward?