In front of an audience filled with parents and kids, a woman bellows into a microphone while stomping around a stage.
“What are you willing to sacrifice for your children?” she shouts.
The Sydney crowd yells back “everything”. One or two scream “my life”.
The rest of her speech doesn’t mention the topic by name — although she refers to it once as “crap you put in your body” — but she’s talking about COVID-19 vaccines for children.
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The speaker is Melissa Ava George, who says she works as a “holistic health and empowerment coach” using the online pseudonym The Woke Mumma. She’s also one of the staunch anti-vaccine advocates working with Parents Asking Questions, a new entrant in the growing field of organisations trying to convince parents not to get their children vaccinated.
Anti-vaccine activists and organisations champion all types of different causes and individuals as a way of inserting themselves into news cycles and hijacking attention, from Indigenous issues during the recent Northern Territory COVID-19 lockdowns, to Novak Djokovic.
These causes are often discarded when the new topic du jour comes up. But their focus on children’s vaccination has been a long-held passion that goes back far beyond the pandemic. Despite the proven safety of COVID-19 vaccines, the rate of vaccine hesitancy is higher among parents considering vaccinating their children than it is in the general population.
Polling by Resolve Strategic for Nine papers at the end of November last year found that just 5% of Australians were hesitant about vaccines. But 17% of parents of 5-11 year olds said they weren’t likely to get their children vaccinated when a vaccine became available. This number jumps to 31% of people who either said they didn’t think that all children should be vaccinated against COVID-19 or didn’t know.
Recently these groups have intensified their efforts. The beginning of the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines for children last week has been a flashpoint. Misinformation and unsourced rumours about children’s vaccine injuries have circulated widely online. Plus, pivoting to focusing on children has helped anti-vaccine campaigners stay relevant now that more than 95% of Australians have had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Australia’s most active anti-vaccine and conspiracy group, Reignite Democracy Australia, has pivoted to campaigning against children’s vaccinations with a growing intensity. After posting just five times about children in the first half of 2021, their Instagram account posted about the topic 33 times in the second half, and eight times so far in 2022.
Just before the end of the year, the group launched the #SaveOurKids campaign with letters for parents to excuse their children from vaccination at school, while also driving a mobile billboard questioning the safety of vaccines.
Australia’s longest running anti-vaccine group Australian Vaccination-Choice Network has also taken up the topic, recently claiming that a legal challenge to stop children aged five to 11 from getting vaccinated, prepared by their crowdfunded lawyers, is “imminent”.
Politicians spouting anti-vaccine rhetoric have taken up the cause too. Government MP George Christensen released a podcast earlier this week with the title “Do NOT vax your children” with guest Dr Robert Malone, a scientists whose views on vaccines and public health responses to COVID-19 have been discredited. Another government senator Gerard Rennick has repeatedly posted unverified testimonials of “vaccine injuries” to children on his Facebook page.
New groups specifically focusing on opposing children’s vaccinations have emerged, including Parents With Questions, SKIP Australia, and Children’s Health Defense Fund. Launched in late November, Parents With Questions has already built up tens of thousands of followers across Facebook, Instagram and Telegram, and a Facebook group of more than 1000 people committed to local activism.
The group claims to be a “a bunch of parents with curious minds who want to make sure we have all the information about COVID vaccinations for our kids”. Their aim is to sow doubt about the safety of children’s vaccinations, and then train parents to do the same in their networks.
Their website says that the group was founded by three neighbours: sustainable businessman Adam Gibson, founding member of INXS Jon Farriss, and farmer and Harris Farm ambassador Charlie Arnott.
The group also counts high-profile figures among its fans, including Australian musician Ziggy Alberts, former AFL premiership winner Kane Johnson, actor Isabel Lucas, snowboarder and Australia’s most successful Winter Olympian Torah Bright, former pro surfer Taj Burrow, and actor couple Aaron Jeffery and Zoe Naylor. Earlier this week, Gerard Rennick posted an hour-long interview with Adam Gibson to 100,000 Facebook followers. The group even shared personal messages of support from NFL hall-of-famer Ken Ruettgers and NBA all-time assist leader John Stockton.
Safe Kids Informed Parents (SKIP Australia) is a humbler group out of Victoria comprised of parents concerned about vaccines as well as “mask wearing, lockdowns, interrupted learning and isolation on the health and well-being of our children among others”. Fronted by father Pearse Casey, the group is focusing on pressuring school administration and local councils.
In October, a chapter of Robert F Kennedy’s anti-vaccine group Children’s Health Defense (CHD) officially launched in Australia. The US-based group, which has been called one of the world’s major sources of misinformation about vaccines, raised US$6.8 million in revenue in 2020.
While international anti-vaccine groups will sometimes seed groups in other countries, these satellites have little or nothing to do with their sister organisations. However, it appears that CHD has strong links to the US operation, including having one of the US group’s international chapter coordinators listed as one of the company’s directors on ASIC’s business register, along with Australian “building biologist” Kelly Abeleven and consultant Stephen Toneguzzo.
So far CHD Australia’s activity seems to be mostly limited to posting medical misinformation to their tens of thousands of social media followers. Their website outlines some larger efforts: grassroots community action and raising money for legal challenges to stop children’s vaccination, get a 5G moratorium and get legal advice about “unlocking the police files on paedophiles running our government, our courts and our law enforcement agencies”.
With help from household names and international anti-vaxxer groups, Australian anti-vaccine activists have set their sights on children’s vaccination as their latest target. And they’re embracing a swathe of tactics to undermine Australia’s best defence against the pandemic.
Next: the tactics used by anti-vaccine campaigners…