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She won't back down: MD vows to fight back after anti-vax death threats

Dr. Eve Switzer has been targeted by anti-vaxxers - a relatively small but aggressively vocal group that spreads misinformation about vaccines. But the online assault has only encouraged her to fight harder for children and public health.
An onslaught of online abuse from anti-vaxxers has only strengthened the resolve of paediatrician and vaccine advocate Eve Switzer. (Courtesy of Eve Switzer)

Dr. Eve Switzer is one of a growing number of doctors who has been targeted by anti-vaxxers — a relatively small but aggressively vocal group that spreads misinformation about vaccines.

While parents are the ones who fall victim to the misinformation campaigns, doctors such as Swtizer have faced personal attacks online — including death threats. 

"We have a new security system in our house now," said Switzer, a pediatrician in Enid, Okla., who's been facing a barrage of graphic threats to her and her family online because of her support for vaccines.

"I've been to the police three times now making reports specifically about threats of harm,"  she tells Dr. Brian Goldman, host of White Coat Black Art. "I've also been threatened with sexual harm too."

WARNING: Graphic and disturbing language:

Dr Eve Switzer reads tweets from anti-vaxxers 1:16

While Switzer says it doesn't take much more than being a doctor who supports vaccines to be targeted, her particularly troubling ongoing battle with anti-vaxxers began when she was president of the Oklahoma Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The academy opposed a bill that would have required doctors to provide pages of ingredients and onerous paperwork every time they gave a vaccine. Switzer sent a letter to the governor outlining the academy's concern that it would confuse parents and reduce the rate of immunizations in the state.

The governor vetoed the bill. That's when anti-vaxxers upped their personal attacks on Switzer.

According to Switzer, they began spreading news about her that was "blatantly false."

She has since filed a defamation lawsuit.

An example of some of the online comments.

Switzer says that "anti-vaccine people were being encouraged to leave false reviews" about her online.

Although the main battlegrounds were social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, the abuse spilled over to other sites like Google and WebMD, where anti-vaxxers left negative reviews.

"I'm vulnerable because there's no verification that they're actually your patients," she says. "Most of them are people I've never met and never seen before. So this is a real problem."

Attacks also became increasingly graphic and personal over time.

"They were calling my office and then it devolved very quickly after that into physical threats. I would get private messages from people that I didn't know. They were comments related to a bullet in my head … threatening my staff."

Switzer says the "boldness of the people who are opposed to vaccinations is increasing and adds that she has seen clinics targeted for "something as simple as putting on their Facebook page that they had flu shots available."

Driven to fight harder

Rather than silencing her, the online attacks have instead made Switzer's own pro-vaccine campaign even stronger.

"I think in my particular case — with my beliefs and my personality and my experience — it drives me towards being more of an advocate," she says. "There's probably very, very few things on this planet that has made such an incredible impact on preventing harm to children.

"So if I'm going to pick anything to be an advocate for, this one is a pretty easy one," she says. 

She concedes that she may occasionally need a social media break, and says online advocacy may not be for everyone. In addition to the disparaging online comments about herself, they've taken aim at her children, husband, her parents and even her deceased sister.

"If you don't have the constitution to be able to separate that and not take those personally and still stick to the science and the facts then yeah, the social media outlet is not for you."

But she considers speaking up part of her job because, "It's important for pediatricians to be a voice."

Friends and allies

However, along with the trolls, the Internet has introduced her to many online allies. She's connected with both doctors and lay people who are actively challenging and correcting misinformation about vaccines.

 "I've made quite a few friends on social media as a result of all of this. I'm very grateful and impressed."