On Halloween 2019, Heather Brooke Simpson, a mom of one and a staunch believer of the anti-vaccine movement, posted a picture of her costume on Facebook. She wore a black t-shirt and painted-on red spots, and added the caption, “”Was trying to think of the least scary thing I could be for Halloween…so I became the measles.”
Her tasteless and misguided joke went viral. Before she knew it, Simpson’s photo was all over the internet.
In anti-vaccine groups on Facebook, Heather Brooke Simpson received endless positive attention for her costume, but elsewhere, people were not so amused. Simpson says she received on overwhelming number of angry messages, including death threats and calls for her suicide.
That didn’t change her mind. Heather Brooke Simpson was in deep. The anti-vaxx world was her entire world, and her social network depended on it. She was not a casual observer. She was in the thick of it.
Unsurprisingly, many of Heather Brooke Simpson’s social media posts from her time on the anti-vaxx scene were cringeworthy, upsetting and downright offensive. Far-right political views, anti-choice rhetoric, and conspiracy series dot the landscape of her social media presence.
That was then.
Now, just over a year later, you may be surprised to know that when Heather Brooke Simpson agreed to sit down with Scary Mommy, her intention was to spread a surprising new message. Her measles costume days are over. Simpson now understands that vaccines are safe and effective—and she is encouraging everyone to take the COVID-19 vaccine when their turn comes.
Let’s talk about that fateful costume…
“If I’m being honest, it was really just an attention gag. I did not realize it would blow up. I thought my anti-vaxx friends would get a kick out of it. I did not foresee people that have lost children to the measles seeing it,” Simpson admits.
“In the anti-vaccine spaces, they were thrilled about it.”
When one of her friends pointed out that her costume could be hurtful to some people, Simpson issued an apology. “Like, a somewhat half-assed apology,” she admits. “[The AV crowd] got mad about that.”
Tell us what happened to change your mind about vaccines.
“I had to get endometriosis surgery last February, and I posted about it, and all of my anti-vaxx friends were saying that I was taking the lazy route by having surgery, and that I just needed to eat better. I was so torn about that. I went to my gynecologist, and she hugged me, and she said, ‘This isn’t your fault,'” Heather recalls. “And I cried and I cried because it was so relieving to hear that it wasn’t my fault. The anti-vaxxers were saying if there was any health issue in your life, it’s because of you. [That day with my gynecologist] was the moment I started to turn toward Western medicine.”
Once the proverbial seal was broken, and Simpson began to see the benefit of modern medicine and the kindness in her healthcare providers’ hearts, she started to think about the inconsistencies in her anti-vaccine stance.
“We vaccinate our pets. We take Tylenol. We take Motrin. I take any meds that doctors give me,” Simpson shares. “I realized I literally follow everything the FDA and the CDC says. Why am I not listening to them on [vaccines]?”
Simpson’s healthy fear of tetanus made her begin to reconsider her vaccine stance.
“I have lived in absolute terror day and night about my child being scratched by a pet and getting tetanus. Or just falling outside and scratching herself on a stick and getting tetanus. I talked to my pediatrician about it and she was like, ‘Heather, your child is three years old. She’s gonna be fine if she gets a tetanus shot!'” And all the fear just kind of drained out of me. I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh. Would that not be awesome to not have to worry about tetanus? What am I doing?!’” she laughed.
Recently, Heather started to post online about her change of heart.
She is no stranger to internet backlash. Simpson has been on the receiving end of plenty of criticism during her time as an anti-vaccine advocate. But the reaction she received from the anti-vaxx crowd when she changed her tune was so intense that she ended up in the hospital suffering an acute panic attack.
“When you are in this group mindset where you have this group support, and this is your entire community and your entire world, and they all slash your character at one time and ditch you?” She lets out a deep sigh. “They say horrifying things about you. It’s like every person in your support group turns against you at one time. What the pro-vaxers said and the hate I got from them [for the costume] was nothing compared to that.”
“They say you’re a paid shill by Big Pharma, a crisis actor, and that you’re mentally unstable,” she explains.
Simpson, who is open about her struggle with anxiety and PTSD, said she finds the attempted insult to her mental health to be ironic coming from a group that is historically quick to believe far-fetched conspiracy theories, and live in fear of non-existent threats.
“I am not a conspiracy theorist, but I will say once I was in the AV crowd, I was exposed to so many conspiracy theories that I would entertain them for about a week, and then I would realize how ridiculous they were,” she admits.
Heather Brooke Simpson has experienced a shift in her political beliefs, too.
“I voted for Trump in 2016. Part of my anti-vaxx followers came to me because I was a Trump supporter. I would post horrible memes about the left,” she admits, voice wavering.
For the first time in her life, Simpson started examining her political beliefs one at a time, and realized that her opinions were in line with the Democratic party, almost without exception.
“I would talk to my friends about [politics] and they would say, ‘But you’re pro-life! You have to vote Trump if you’re pro-life.’ But I’m pro-life for all the other people as well, who have already are alive. For that reason, I voted Biden because I now believe in universal healthcare for all. I’ve seen the price of medication and healthcare and it’s a disaster.”
What else would you like our readers to know?
“How sorry I am for that costume, and if somebody has someone in their lives who suffered from the measles or had lasting consequences my heart just breaks that I did something that stupid,” she says.
Regarding the ableism in the anti-vaccine community, especially toward autistic people, Simpson adds, “I am so, so sorry that I pushed that agenda in any way. I never meant to do that.”
Heather Brooke Simpson wants to warn everyone against listening to anecdotes over scientific evidence.
“I was going to get my flu shot last Friday, but I didn’t. Instead, I started spitting up blood later that day because I had a really bad case of esophagitis that came on all of a sudden. Had I gotten my flu shot that morning, people would have blamed the flu shot. I got my flu shot the following Monday, and I was totally fine, but that is how anecdotes happen,” she muses.
Simpson urges everyone to get their COVID vaccine information from reputable sources (she’s a big fan of Dr. Paul Offit), and stay away from online spaces that are intended to be anti-vaccine echo chambers.
“As far as the COVID vaccine, that’s the same thing that’s happening. People are reading these anecdotes, and it has potential to kill so many people if they don’t read the actual science and go straight to the CDC and straight to the source. Reading these anecdotes could lengthen the pandemic, and cause so many lives to end. And it’s so important to stay off of those crazy Facebook groups right now!”
Since she has publicly changed her stance on vaccines, some people have accused her of never being anti-vaxx in the first place.
Others have asserted that she is now being paid to endorse vaccines. Simpson categorically denies those accusations, even laughing that it would be nice to be paid for saying the things she is already saying for free.
Have you ever heard the saying, “Don’t cling to a mistake just because you spent a long time making it?” After speaking to her, I get the sense that is exactly the kind of advice that Heather Brooke Simpson is trying to follow.
She spent several years of her life hanging onto dangerous ideas. She said a lot of things I can’t imagine saying, and made a lot of choices that I just can’t imagine making. Simpson describes the anti-vaccine world as “cult-like,” and she acknowledges how much of her sense of belonging and community was wrapped up in maintaining her status within that camp.
Now Simpson is actively working on deconstructing some of her long-held beliefs and acknowledging the harm they caused. She is not at the end of her journey yet, and she might make more missteps as she goes. But when someone goes from dressing up as the measles for Halloween to encouraging everyone to get their COVID vaccine, I think it’s only fair to give her credit for the work she’s already done.
That’s a serious one-eighty.
You can read Heather’s story in her own words on the Voices for Vaccines Facebook page.