Do you want easy money? Do you want fame? Do you want to become a guru? Didn’t get into medical school? Don’t have any moral scruples?” So reads the website Antyszczepionkowcy.biz (which takes its domain name from the Polish word for anti-vaxxers).
Money is always nice. Fame? Why not? I’m not sure about becoming a guru, but it’s true, I didn’t get into medical school. That’s probably because I never applied, but the fact remains that I didn’t get in. We’ll see about morality.
I read on: “Antyszczepionkowcy.biz will teach you how to quickly and easily achieve your goals while at the same time tackling the problem of overpopulation!”
The bottom of the page gives a contact address which says “Wrocław, 2019.” I sent a message and got onto a train. The Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity was playing on the streets, full of enthusiasm and joy, unaware of the tragedy that was to unfold that evening. For 27 years, Jerzy Owsiak had been organizing the largest annual charity event on the streets of Polish cities in mid-January. For years, the populist right had been mercilessly criticizing Owsiak. On January 13, 2019, the orchestra played as usual. The mayor of Gdańsk, Paweł Adamowicz, was speaking on a stage set up in the city center. Just as fireworks were being set off, a man ran up to Adamowicz and stabbed him several times. The Mayor of Gdańsk died in the hospital the next day.
I arrived in the southwestern city of Wrocław after dusk. I knocked at the address of the “anti-vaxxers’” headquarters. Muscle was guarding the door.
How Do You Cause an Epidemic?
Kuba is a programmer, Aleksandra is a doctor, and Muscle is their bulldog. They read recently that they supposedly employ CIA methods. “You see what kind of CIA we have here. We designed the whole game at home in our apartment, and the beautiful patterns on the cards were designed by a friend of ours who is a graphic artist,” Kuba laughs.
Antyszczepionkowcy.biz is a card game for two to four players. For now, only a prototype is available. The creators are refining the rules and raising money to finance the production of boxed copies. The game will also be available free of charge on their website for people to print out at home. You can already download the prototype after subscribing to their newsletter.
Kuba and Aleksandra believe vaccination is one of the greatest achievements of modern civilization. They are ardent supporters of maintaining mandatory vaccinations, and, in their opinion, the so-called anti-vaxxing movement represents a serious epidemiological threat. “We don’t think that parents who do not vaccinate their children are bad people. Parents are afraid, they have questions, they have doubts. Our game is not meant to ridicule their fears, but rather to tell them about the people who do harm and derive tangible benefits from it,” Kuba and Aleksandra explain. Muscle barks in approval.
That’s it for the introduction. Time to lay the cards out on the table. Kuba and Aleksandra pull out the box with the latest version of their game. It contains one hundred cards in foil packets. The cards are divided into several categories. The most important of these, the players’ main object of desire, are the legislation cards. “Abolishing the obligation to vaccinate” is the most valuable, yielding nine points. The first player to get ten points wins the game.
“We are playing as anti-vaxxers, so the goal is to gain power and money,” Kuba explains. Power is represented by legislation cards, while money is represented by product cards: an “Organic Enema Set” is worth two points, as is the “E-Learning Course on Breast Enhancement Through Hypnosis.” The deck also includes action cards, influence cards, and special devotee cards, which include the “Personal Development Coach” and the “Well-Known TV Psychic.”
In addition to the cards that we will soon be drawing from the pile, there is also a “Global Immunity Indicator,” an infographic that shows the vaccination levels guaranteeing safety against epidemics. If the percentage of people vaccinated against measles drops below 95 percent, we lose immunity against an epidemic (both in real life and in the game). Pulling a measles card in the game ends your turn, but in real life it may even result in death.
“The information we included on the indicator is based on official data from the World Health Organization,” Aleksandra notes.
Before the first hand is dealt, Kuba checks how the bidding for a prototype of the game is going in the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity’s online auction. The auction ends in two weeks, and all the proceeds will be paid out to the Great Orchestra. “It started at one zloty. Since 9:00 am it’s gone up to 445, so it’s not bad.” The “anti-vaxxers” are satisfied. This really is a good result—bidders are not willing to pay that much for statuettes donated to the auction by TV celebrities
The first round. Aleksandra draws a rubella card. At the beginning of the game, the percentage of the population that is vaccinated is 99 percent, so one card is not yet fatal. The next card: also rubella. Death. Next up is Kuba, then me. After ten minutes, I really do care about accumulating power and money. I collect follower cards, buy products, and collect cards that will allow me to buy anti-vaccine laws. Aleksandra wins after an hour. Together, we managed to trigger epidemics of measles, pertussis, and diphtheria. If we were to play longer, we would also be threatened by rubella and mumps
Aleksandra works at the university hospital and is earning her PhD. Kuba is busy with programming assignments during the day. They work on developing the game after hours.
Kuba: “We made it because we could no longer listen to all these insinuations that vaccines are some kind of doctors’ conspiracy driven by big pharmaceutical companies.”
Aleksandra: “We want our satirical game to shed light on the interests of anti-vaxxers. After all, by discouraging vaccination and modern medicine, they are earning money and gaining power.”
We will not find the names of Poland’s leading anti-vaccine activists on the cards of Antyszczepionkowcy.biz. Although Aleksandra and Kuba take their inspiration from real life, the game’s storyline is a product of their imagination. You can always take a break from playing, and the diseases brought on by the cards will not land you in the hospital.
In Poland, we have not had to face an outbreak of any of the infectious diseases included in the game. But we have never come so close to abolishing mandatory vaccinations as we did at the end of last year. A small group of concerned parents from Poznań built up a base of support over the course of several years, thanks to which they submitted a legislative proposal to the Sejm with more than 100,000 signatures. Although they ultimately lost in the Sejm, they have not given up the fight. Who is continuing to support them? Which of their political allies have given up? And who is defending universal vaccination in Poland?
Five in the Election
Paradoxically, in our country, we have less and less freedom,” says a woman in a beige jacket sporting a characteristic, evenly trimmed fringe. “I, Justyna Socha, a citizen of Poznań, a candidate for parliament, want to exercise and enforce five basic rights.”
It is October 2015, in the midst of the parliamentary campaign. Socha is narrating an ad about the right of citizens to decide about their own country, about their own health and that of their children, about the right to education and equal justice. “We want to live in a country where the goal is our good and not the profit of international corporations. Vote for the five on the Kukiz’15 list,” Socha concludes.
She managed to convince 1660 voters—not enough to get a parliamentary seat. Three years after her electoral loss, however, she spoke from the parliamentary rostrum to a room full of MPs. She was hoping to convince them to abolish vaccination requirements.
Vaccines in the Sejm
Socha did not start out as a complete unknown in the 2015 election, although her notoriety was primarily local, fuelled by flash mobs and street demonstrations. “I am the leader of the National Association for Knowledge on Vaccines, ‘STOP NOP,’ and the mother of four children. Professionally, I work as an insurance agent,” she explained in an invitation to an electoral meeting.
A vegetarian, a promoter of breastfeeding and the idea of food cooperatives, a columnist for Warszawska Gazeta, a right-wing tabloid known for its anti-Semitic content. Why was she devoting so much attention to vaccines? “I got involved in social activism when post-vaccination complications struck one of my children, and the healthcare system and the government failed to support me,” she explains in a campaign leaflet.
The National Association for Knowledge on Vaccines “STOP NOP” was registered in 2011. The organization’s oldest film on Facebook is seven years old. It features several people in the center of Poznań trying to convince journalists and passers-by that vaccination should not be carried out without parental consent. Socha explains that potential post-vaccination reactions range “from the mild, like redness, to permanent physical and mental damage, and even death.”
21.04.2012 r. w pierwszy dzień Europejskiego Tygodnia Szczepień w Poznaniu odbyła się pikieta pod hasłem PEŁNEJ INFORMACJI I WOLNOŚCI WYBORU SZCZEPIEŃ. Wzięły w niej udział zarówno osoby, które doświadczyły czym są powikłania poszczepienne, jak i te, które doświadczyły przymusu.
Opublikowany przez Ogólnopolskie Stowarzyszenie Wiedzy o Szczepieniach STOP NOP Czwartek, 11 października 2012
Back in 2012, there was still no indication that in a few years this initiative would grow into a movement capable of collecting 120,000 signatures for a legislative proposal.
Socha was already looking for potential political alliances during the 2015 electoral campaign. She appeared at a press conference with Patryk Jaki, then a member of the United Right. “Giving a parent no choice on an issue as sensitive as vaccination, when it concerns the child’s safety, when the parent does not want to carry out this vaccination, is absolutely an abuse by the Polish state, and we want to fight against such abuse,” said MP Jaki.
At the start of the next parliamentary term, the STOP NOP movement had already won over several advocates in the Sejm. In early January 2016, the Parliamentary Team on the Safety of Protective Vaccination for Children and Adults was established. It comprised only deputies who entered the Sejm as part of the Kukiz’15 list.
A few months before the 2015 election, Paweł Kukiz, a Polish rock star of the 1990s, formed an electoral committee. It was not his first foray onto the political scene. A few years earlier, he had launched an unsuccessful campaign to introduce single-mandate electoral districts for the Sejm and the Senate. Kukiz’s meetings with voters in 2015 were part election conventions and part rock concerts. Kukiz appeared in a leather jacket more frequently than in a suit, and he sang his greatest hits, although he omitted the most iconoclastic—songs that denounced politicians as whores and criticized the clergy for their greed.
The rocker’s electoral committee (Kukiz’15 is not a political party) managed to win over primarily young voters and the politically apathetic. Kukiz’s candidates presented themselves as the only alternative to the rotten establishment and, like Donald Trump in the United States, promised to clean up the Sejm. They ultimately received 8.81 percent of votes and 42 seats. These were filled by rockers, rappers (including the Polish rap legend of the ‘90s, Liroy), brewers, and extreme rightist nationalists. With time, some of them became known as opponents of mandatory vaccination. Today, some individual deputies from the ruling PiS party speak positively about parents refusing to vaccinate their children, although the government’s position is unambiguous—it does support mandatory vaccination.
The Parliamentary Team on the Safety of Protective Vaccination for Children and Adults meets every few months. Four meetings took place in 2016, followed by two in 2017, and only one in 2018. In 2019, the Team has met once to listen to Christopher Exley, a British chemist from the University of Keele. “It is possible that in a very small subgroup of people, aluminum is connected to autism. And some of that aluminum might come from vaccines,” Exley explained in his lecture. In March 2019, a group of Danish scientists published a study conducted on a huge sample of over 650,000 children. The research report comes to a clear conclusion: vaccination against measles, mumps, and rubella does not cause autism.
The regulations of the Parliamentary Team read: “The Team was set up to conduct an audit and possibly create new a new legal framework in the field of mandatory and voluntary vaccinations.” Meetings in the Sejm building have successfully legitimized the activities of Socha and her organization. There is more and more wind in the anti-vaccine movement’s sails. As the Parliamentary Team organizes further meetings, the media are reporting that measles is on the rise. Looking back only a few years, you can already see a clear increase in the number of patients—but the real spike has yet to happen.
What Do the Numbers Tell Us?
The situation in Poland is monitored by the National Institute of Hygiene, which tracks the incidence of measles and other infectious diseases, and whose data is published in an annual bulletin. The National Institute of Hygiene website shows statistics going back to 1999. Up until 2009, the number of patients ranges from a dozen to 133 registered cases per year. Only 13 cases were detected in 2010, but over the next few years, the number of cases grew systematically. However, it was only in 2018 that the National Institute of Hygiene noted a radical increase—339 cases. Statistics from the first two months of 2019 are even more concerning. In January and February alone, the National Institute of Hygiene registered 314 patients.
Is the anti-vaccine movement to blame? “There are many factors affecting the number of patients. Refusing vaccination certainly does not increase resistance to measles,” says Jan Bondar, spokesperson of the Chief Sanitary Inspectorate. “But the ongoing outbreak of measles in Ukraine may also be an important factor here.”
We also do not know the exact level of immunity to measles in Polish society. “Hard data regarding the percentage of the overall population that is immune to measles is in fact not available at the National Institute of Hygiene, or at any other institution,” confirms the Institute’s Iwona Paradowska-Stankiewicz.
We do know, however, that the percentage of vaccinated children is falling. Almost all (99.8 percent) of those born between 1998 and 2007 were vaccinated. Thirteen years later, in 2016, the percentage of children not vaccinated against measles had increased from 0.2 percent to 6 percent. In absolute terms, that means that tens of thousands of parents have decided to refuse mandatory vaccinations for their children over the last dozen or so years.
The outbreak of measles in Ukraine did not start overnight. Even in 2008, there were no indications that in a few years the country would report tens of thousands of measles patients. The percentage of vaccinated children in 2008 was at a similarly high level (94 percent) as in Poland. One year later, it dropped to 75 percent. In 2010, only 56 percent of children were vaccinated.
That dramatic decline followed the death of a 17-year-old boy, who allegedly died after being administered the MMR vaccine. The case was publicized in the media and seriously damaged public trust in vaccination. At the request of the Ukrainian government, a special UN delegation came to Kiev to investigate the boy’s death. In a statement published on the World Health Organization website, we read: “The team concluded that there is no evidence that would suggest that the boy’s death was due to vaccination.”
WHO assurances have only moderately restored public trust in vaccination. In 2014, Ukraine was preoccupied with the effects of the Maidan revolution and the armed conflict in the Donbas. This did not help increase the percentage of children who were vaccinated.
In 2016, only 42 percent of newborns in Ukrainian hospitals received the vaccine. Two years later, Ukraine shocked the world with its high number of registered measles cases—by the end of 2018, they exceeded 53,000. “The root cause of the measles outbreaks … is a failure to adequately vaccinate,” commented Katrina Kretsinger, an expert at the World Health Organization, in an interview with Science.
The “Kidnapping” in Białogard
In 2017, hardly anybody in Poland was worrying about a fledgling outbreak beyond the eastern border. For a few days that September, the national media were consumed by the case of a newborn from Białogard, a small city in northeastern Poland. Immediately after she was born, her parents refused to allow her to be vaccinated or administered vitamin K. This is a standard procedure. Vitamin K is meant to prevent potential hemorrhages that could even result in a baby’s death. The doctors notified the authorities, and the local family court almost immediately restricted the parents’ parental rights. The day after she was born, the child was no longer in the hospital. Her parents removed her from the room and left. They hid from the police.
Across the country, the media discussed the “kidnapping” of this baby. “Mandatory vaccinations are a totalitarian practice towards families,” Justyna Socha commented on Radio Maryja on the second day of the search, defending the parents’ decision. After five days the court rescinded its earlier decision. The family returned home.
Justyna Socha Fundacja STOP NOP Białogard – protest pod Sądem
Six months later, in January 2018, the District Court in Białogard decreed: “There is no reason to limit the parental rights of a couple, which, against the advice of doctors, took their daughter home the day after she was born.”
Socha declared victory. Another success awaited her a few months later.
In April 2018, the Speaker of the Sejm registered a civic legislative initiative sponsored by STOP NOP. “The draft law amending the Act on Preventing and Combating Infections and Infectious Diseases in Humans is aimed at eliminating mandatory vaccination,” the authors of the bill explained. STOP NOP activists had three months to collect 100,000 signatures. This was no longer just a group of a dozen concerned parents who organized the 2012 demonstration in Poznań. They weree able to collect signatures from 120,000 people.
October 3, 2018. “Madam Marshal, High Chamber, Deputies!” Socha begins her speech. Three years earlier she had failed to win a parliamentary seat, but now she is standing at the parliamentary pulpit and reporting on the civic legislative initiative.
“They said, let it go. They said, they will reject you anyway. They said, you have no chance. They were wrong. Faith and love can move mountains!” Socha writes in a triumphant post the day after the vote in the Sejm. Two hundred and fifty two deputies voted in favor of further work on the draft legislation (including members of PiS, Kukiz’15, WiS, and independent MPs), while 158 voted against (from PO, Nowoczesna, PSL, and UED). The draft bill is sent to the relevant parliamentary committees: the Committee On Health and the Committee on Family, Senior, and Social Policy.
Wczoraj miałem przyjemność i koszmar zarazem uczestniczenia w debacie dotyczącej zasadności przymusu szczepień oraz…
During its 2015 electoral campaign, PiS promised that it would not reject civic legislative projects in the first reading. The party made an exception for the draft legislation liberalizing abortion law, “Let’s Save Women,” but in the case of vaccinations, PiS voted for further consideration of the bill.
But this is where PiS’s indulgence of STOP NOP ended. Socha could not even count on the support of one of her earliest political patrons, Patryk Jaki.
While the draft was being discussed in committee, Jaki was going around Warsaw, handing out apples and appealing for votes in the capital’s upcoming mayoral election. The media dug up his statements on vaccination. Association with a movement seeking to undermine the authority of science and medicine would not win him any votes in Warsaw. “I have already said many times that if I become mayor of the capital city of Warsaw, I will promote vaccination and I will also spend funds from the city budget on preventive vaccinations,” Jaki assured voters three weeks before the election.
Ministers from the PiS government are equally unequivocal in their statements concerning vaccination. “It is necessary to maintain the obligation to vaccinate,” said Elżbieta Rafalska, the Minister of Family, Labor, and Social Policy, in a conversation with Polish Radio. The Minister of Health, Łukasz Szumowski, was also critical of the STOP NOP legislative project. “Vaccinations have been mandatory in Poland for many years, thanks to which we do not have the diseases that there used to be,” he told RMF FM.
The committees issued a negative opinion on the draft legislation and submitted it to a vote in the Sejm. Socha and STOP NOP lost in the second round. Three hundred and fifty four deputies voted against the draft, 16 abstained from voting, and only ten opposed rejecting the bill. After the crushing judgments of government ministers, parliamentary commissions, and the Sejm Analysis Bureau, STOP NOP activists were left with only their closest allies.
All the MPs who voted to end mandatory vaccination entered the Sejm in 2015 as part of the Kukiz’15 list. Today, most of them have left that grouping but remain independent. One of the MPs who voted for the draft legislation, Anna Maria Siarkowska, now belongs to PiS.
The most recognizable figures among the parliamentary allies of STOP NOP are the entrepreneur Marek Jakubiak and the nationalist Robert Winnicki. “As a parliamentarian, he is involved in the anti-vaccine movement,” read Winnicki’s biographical note on the website of the Confederation, a new grouping of extreme right-wing politicians. [Winnicki later edited the description and removed the quoted excerpt – ed.]
The leader of the National Movement proudly proclaimed himself to be “anti-vaccination.” This is strange, given that in July 2018 Justyna Socha demanded that the TV station TVN apologize for using this term in reference to her. “Please be advised that the draft legislation does not provide for the elimination of vaccination, hence labeling the authors of the project as ‘anti-vaccination’ is incomprehensible,” she wrote on Facebook.
Hidden Therapies in Secret Groups
The parliamentary battle for the abolition of mandatory vaccination ended with a defeat for Justyna Socha. But STOP NOP is still active. The group is using the last few months of the current parliamentary term to bring foreign researchers propagating the view that there is a connection between the aluminum present in vaccines and autism to the Sejm. Socha’s activities have also emboldened tens of thousands of people who publish sensational posts on social media to undermine trust in vaccines and doctors.
STOP NOP’s Facebook page now has 123,000 followers, and a group for supporters of the organization numbers 56,000. Justyna Socha has 22,000 followers. But the anti-vaccine movement on Facebook is not limited to Socha and STOP NOP.
For several months I monitored posts to the group “Jerzy Zięba – the best support group for ‘Together We Make GOOD.’” Today it has over 74,000 members. The administrators write, “This group was created out of concern for the life and health of Mr. Jerzy Zięba, who is constantly persecuted by envoys of the pharmaceutical lobby. Mr. Jerzy [is] being intimidated by BIG Pharma because of his deep knowledge of natural and effective treatments for chronic diseases.”
Jerzy Zięba is very popular among people who oppose mandatory vaccination. In the early 1980s, he graduated from the Faculty of Mining and Metallurgical Machines at the Krakow University of Science and Technology. He went to Germany and later to Australia, where he completed a course on hypnosis. He returned to Poland in 2003.
His Facebook profile has accumulated 276,000 followers. His book Hidden Therapies argues that conventional medicine is ineffective, and that doctors are concealing truly effective therapies from their patients. He also runs the online store Visanto. It offers, among other things, capsules of sauerkraut and beetroot (PLN 95 for 60 capsules). You can also purchase a “water structurizer” (PLN 2,500)—a device that supposedly “restore[s] to water its lost magnetic memory.”
In the hours-long videos he publishes on Facebook, Zięba talks about the supposed harmfulness of vaccines and Wi-Fi networks. In his bestselling book, he writes that thanks to hypnosis, women’s breasts can grow “after 12 weeks, even about 12 cm in circumference.” The entrepreneur has no medical training and has been repeatedly criticized by the medical and academic communities (including by the President of Poland’s Supreme Medical Council, Dr. Maciej Hamankiewicz).
When I joined the Facebook group for Zięba’s supporters it was still searchable, but now it has been set to secret. You can read about food dyes that cause cancer, and watch proclamations by Jerzy Zięba copied from his profile. Members of the group consult with each other in the comments on cures for influenza and cancer—the flu should be treated by rinsing the mouth out with oil, while ovarian cancer can be defeated thanks to the ketogenic diet. There are also plenty of mocking and aggressive comments about doctors fighting the anti-vaccine movement.
A recent post is illustrative. Marta has uploaded photos of Dr. Dawid Ciemięga. In less than a day, 158 comments have appeared. Barbara: “I WILL SAY ONE THING: I WOULD BE AFRAID TO LET YOU TREAT EVEN AN ANIMAL.” Dariusz: “it would be better if he turned his attention to birds and preferably his own hehe.” Łukasz: “Pervert.” Agnieszka encourages the rest of the group to move their comments to the doctor’s own profile: “(…) pro-vaxxers pour their slops out there, so it’s worthwhile to make the comments more diverse.” Immediately following Agnieszka’s appeal, similar comments appear on the doctor’s page.
This is not the first time that Ciemięga has had to repulse an attack by anti-vaxxers. Last year, after the first such initiative, he reported his most active harassers to the prosecutor’s office.
District Prosecutor? Please come for the anti-vaxxers
I made an appointment with Dawid Ciemięga at the end of January. He lives in Tychy, a city in Silesia, a mining area in Poland. He works in a public hospital, but he also sees patients at a private pediatric clinic. Outside of work, he runs a blog on Facebook. He publishes a long post on average once a week. He patiently explains why enemas are not effective against the common cold, he clarifies whether cupping makes sense, he answers readers’ questions on the effectiveness of broths and alcohol in the treatment of colds. His posts are followed by 23,000 people.
We meet in a cafe near the stadium of GKS Tychy, the legendary Polish soccer team. He has come straight from his shift at the hospital, his eyes tired after 24 hours on duty. He wastes no time and immediately gets to the point.
On February 9, 2018, Ciemięga published a post about the so-called “Refrigerator Scandal.” Four days earlier, the newspaper Dziennik Gazeta Prawna had raised the alarm: “Hundreds of patients have received a defective vaccine. The doctors knew they were injecting patients with a defective product.” Doubts concerning the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines in question arose after information surfaced that the refrigerators in which the vaccines were being stored had an irregular supply of electricity. Pharmaceutical inspectors allegedly determined that thousands of doses should have been disposed of due to improper storage. “There is evidence that doctors have been vaccinating patients even though they knew that the vaccines should be destroyed,” wrote Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.
Anti-vaccination activists were roiled. They presented reports of defective vaccines as the crowning evidence to unmask a supposed plot by doctors to inject newborns with poison. The Main Pharmaceutical Inspectorate and the Ministry of Health gave a press conference to reassure the public that vaccines are safe for children, even if they have not been properly stored.
Ciemięga follows these reports, and patients write to him with their concerns. In the evening, he sits down at his computer and writes: “There is no conspiracy. There is no scandal. And people who propagate this type of information are simply harming other parents by sowing fear and instigating mass hysteria […].” In six points, he explains that even if the refrigerators had been off for several hours, that would not lead to degradation of the vaccine. His closes his entry with these words: “In the new season of The X-Files, there is a subplot about vaccines containing alien DNA, and about vaccination leading to genocide. I have the impression that some people have taken that too much to heart […] I wish you a nice quiet Friday:).”
He would have to wait several weeks for the next quiet Friday.
Afera czypionkowa!"Podano setkom dzieci wadliwe szczepionki!""Skandal! Lekarze świadomie aplikowali dzieciom wadliwy…
“There was a real anti-vaxxer attack on my page,” Ciemięga says in a cafe near the Municipal Hospital in Tychy. “Dozens of messages claiming that vaccines contain aborted fetuses, mercury, ‘autism sticks.’ If someone told me that people would be writing such things, I would not have believed it. You have to combat foolishness, so I responded in the comments.”
That only encouraged Ciemięga’s opponents. The Internet brawl quickly escalated. “They made memes using photos of me. They claim that I am taking money from pharmaceutical companies—that’s slander,” the pediatrician points out. This was followed by a wave of insults. “‘Murderer,’ “Mengele,” I got called such things.”
That was not the end of it. The Facebook page “Doctor Dawid Ciemięga” also serves as an online calling card for the doctor’s private pediatric practice. Parents submit reviews and leave comments. “I had a five-star rating. The anti-vaxxers have been writing reviews en masse. They call me a ‘bad doctor’ and ‘corrupt,’ and that has lowered my rating.”
Ciemięga disabled the review system. “I’m angry. I have been cultivating my reputation for over six years. I am very engaged in my work, I want to do the best I can, and I can see that my real patients rate me very highly,” says the doctor.
It’s clear that even though a year has passed, the unpleasant memories are still very much alive. “Fake accounts registered at the other end of the country are one thing. But the campaign against me also spread to a forum for parents in Tychy. People who had never been to my office wrote that I am a bad doctor,” Ciemięga says bitterly. “That is why I have referred the matter to the authorities.”
Ciemięga cancelled his shifts for February and March. He postponed his personal plans. He spent his evenings collecting evidence. He wanted the prosecution to have screenshots of all the hateful comments and slander addressed to him. The first three weeks after the publication of his post on the so-called “Refrigerator Scandal” was the hardest period. “First there were dozens of entries, then thousands. Psychologically, it was difficult to bear. My wife supported me, of course, but she urged me not to pursue legal action,” Ciemięga says.
In April, the Chamber of Physicians and Dentists reached out to him, offering financial support. “They said they would cover the attorney’s fees. To this day I have not received that money,” Ciemięga says, sadly. “What has this year taught me? That you have to count primarily on yourself. But I also got a lot of support. The Association of Residents [within the National Trade Union of Physicians – ed.] stood up for me. The support of my patients’ parents was also very important to me.”
Ciemięga’s first visit to the prosecutor’s office was not successful. He went to the District Prosecutor’s Office in Tychy with screenshots printed out from Facebook. He wanted to report criminal defamation (under Article 212 of the Criminal Code). “They laughed me out of the room,” he says. Two weeks later he returned, accompanied by members of the media. This time, the prosecutor’s office accepted his notification. “I did my best to track down the people who were most active in the attack. I chose seven people. I brought all the data that I was able to collect to the prosecutor’s office,” Ciemięga explains.
A few days before our meeting at the café in Tychy, a court in Poznań had issued a verdict in a similar defamation case. Dr. Paweł Grzesiowski had sued Justyna Socha, leader of the STOP NOP movement. His name was listed in the petition to “Stop Pharmaceutical Company Lobbyists in Public Administration,” which Socha sent to the Prime Minister and published online. Grzesiowski maintained that he had been defamed by the term “pharmaceutical company lobbyist.” He demanded that Socha cover his legal costs and make a payment of 10,000 zloty to a Warsaw hospital.
The court imposed a fine of PLN 2,000 on Socha and compelled her to comply with Grzesiowski’s demands. After leaving the courtroom, Socha promised STOP NOP activists that she would appeal the verdict.
A month after our meeting in Tychy, the police called Dawid Ciemięga in for questioning. This time, they did not ask about hateful comments on the pediatrician’s Facebook page. Instead, they were interested in his relationship with birds.
Jerzy Zięba, the author of Hidden Therapies, had informed the prosecutor’s office that Dr. Ciemięga was in close contact with birds and could therefore transfer bacteria, viruses, and fungi to children. The police checked whether children’s health had been compromised at the clinic. Zięba sent letters to hospitals in Tychy demanding the “immediate prohibition of Dawid Ciemięga [from entering the hospital] until the prosecutor’s office completes its proceedings.”
Ptaki mnie dotykały i co mi zrobisz Zięba ?A tak na serio, choć nie – to nie da rady być na serio…Dziś zostałem…
“I had to cancel several patients’ visits today in order to leave work and go to this interrogation, but the policemen’s facial expressions were, I must admit, priceless, and made the whole thing worth it,” Ciemięga wrote in a Facebook post. He added a photo that shows him in the company of a dozen or so parrots. For over ten years he has been involved in helping injured birds. He boasts that he can be credited with “over 130 winged lives saved.”
The comments under this post show messages of support interwoven with vulgar attacks. Ciemięga decided to facilitate the work of the police and explain his current involvement with animals: “For some time I have been dealing mainly with whales, and I now have more contact with them than with birds. It’s something I’ve started doing professionally. So in the future, please report me to the Public Prosecutor’s Office for dissemination of cetacean diseases, rather than avian ones.”
Aleksandra and Kuba started the crowdfunding campaign for their card game on March 16. It’s still running. The game will be available soon.
Justyna Socha is now arguing on Facebook that “vaccines cause inflammation of the brain” and is encouraging her followers to continue fighting for the abolition of mandatory vaccinations. “There are more challenges ahead of us. We’re sailing on the wave,” she wrote on February 26.
Jerzy Zięba is continuing to publish his exhortations. His online store sells a “travel salt cellar” for PLN 39.
Dawid Ciemięga announced in his latest post that he has decided to set up his own organization to “fight against pseudoscience, scammers, fake news, and anti-vaccine propaganda.”
Translated by Marysia Blackwood.