A few months before the birth of her fourth baby, Tara Hills, then a 29-year-old mom living in suburban Ottawa, made a decision she would come to regret. She chose to stop vaccinating her children. Hills can’t point to any one event or encounter that swayed her. “It was more like a trickle,” she said. A collection of uncertainties that grew from things she read on the internet or conversations on park benches with other moms, and left her with a vague but growing sense of alarm. “The doubts just kind of settled there and piled up.”

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A few months before the birth of her fourth baby, Tara Hills, then a 29-year-old mom living in suburban Ottawa, made a decision she would come to regret. She chose to stop vaccinating her children. Hills can’t point to any one event or encounter that swayed her. “It was more like a trickle,” she said. A collection of uncertainties that grew from things she read on the internet or conversations on park benches with other moms, and left her with a vague but growing sense of alarm. “The doubts just kind of settled there and piled up.”

Like many young mothers, Hills spent a lot of time connecting with other parents on Facebook. During her late-night scrolling, she sometimes encountered blog posts that made frightening claims about childhood vaccines. The stories had headlines like “My baby was never the same again” or “If only I had known what would happen.” The anecdotes were not verified or backed with evidence, but they made an impression on Hills, who was deep in the trenches of new motherhood, and whose primary concern was protecting her children from harm.

Decades of research has demonstrated that vaccines are effective and safe for most people. The data supporting immunization is clear, but the stories shared by anti-vaccination groups can be more powerful than charts and numbers. “They use a lot of effective storytelling,” Hills said. “It may not be true, or data-based or supportable. But it’s effective.”

Over time, Hills gained the false impression that both options, vaccinating or not, came with the threat of peril. “From my vantage point right now, it would seem that either road has risks,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “So here I am in the valley of indecision.”

She shared her concerns with her husband, Gavin, and together they decided, in 2008, to put a pause on the vaccinations. Hills would do more research. Then they would re-evaluate.

Over the next seven years, they had three more children. The younger four were unvaccinated; the older three had lapsed immunization records. Hills didn’t get around to researching vaccines, but grew firm in her belief that she had made the right move. She felt that the evidence, when she made time to look for it, would support her position.

In 2015, three factors came together to change her mind: a close call, the rhetoric that developed around a surge in measles outbreaks and a conversation with an empathetic stranger.

Hills and her doctor created a catch-up vaccination schedule. But in a twist of fate, a week before the first appointment, her 10-month-old baby was diagnosed with pertussis, or whooping cough, a highly contagious vaccine-preventable illness that is particularly dangerous in small children. Soon, all seven kids were sick and the family was in isolation. Their story made international news, and Hills, the “anti-vax mom,” became a public villain.

The discourse around vaccination has become toxic over the past decade as the stakes of choosing not to vaccinate have grown higher. Measles outbreaks are surging in some countries because of declining immunization coverage; now, as we approach a pivotal point in an exhausting global pandemic, getting back to normal depends on most of us getting the shot. In this final stretch, people who are vaccine-hesitant have become easy targets for those seeking to vent frustrations, especially as outbreaks in unvaccinated populations — such as nursing homes, where uptake remains a concern — threaten the health and safety of vulnerable people and the larger community.

The ridicule is counterproductive. Just as science has demonstrated that vaccines are safe and effective, behavioural science principles tell us that judgment does not change minds. Instead, it makes people shut down, preventing them from asking questions or seeking information that might help them make informed choices.

“Coming at it from a place of compassion is hard, it takes more time, but that’s what we need,” said Laura Desveaux, a behavioural scientist who sits on Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table. “That’s what it takes to get to the finish line.”

The story of how Hills came around is a cautionary tale about the risks of choosing not to vaccinate, but also a lesson on the tactics that help change minds, and the ones that backfire.


The day she returned home from the hospital with her first child, Hills looked at the newborn baby strapped into the car seat and felt a rush of love and terror. Her daughter was so small and floppy that nurses had tucked rolled-up towels around her body to keep her from slouching. Now Hills and her husband were on their own, with no hospital staff to help them keep the baby alive. Hills felt it instantly, the weight and urgency of her responsibility as a mother. She would carry it for the rest of her life.

A few months after her daughter’s second birthday, Hills gave birth to twin boys. She and Gavin, who had been together since high school, were living in Minnesota, attending a Christian Bible college in Minneapolis. They vaccinated their daughter and the twins without much thought, just part of the routine of having small children. It was only after they returned to Ottawa and settled in Kanata, the place where they had both grown up, that Hills began to have doubts.

Her decision in 2008 to stop vaccinating was born out of fear. Hills had always been skeptical of the government, the medical community and the pharmaceutical industry, and now the things she read online seemed to confirm her suspicions. “We were scared and didn’t know who to trust,” she wrote in a blog post. “Was the medical community just paid off puppets of a Big Pharma-Government-Media conspiracy? Were these vaccines even necessary in this day and age? Were we unwittingly doing greater harm than help to our beloved children?” She believed that “where there is smoke, there must be fire.”

Tara Hills, shown with some of her children, was met with scorn and ridicule for her previous aversion to to vaccinating her children.


Tara Hills, shown with some of her children, was met with scorn and ridicule for her previous aversion to to vaccinating her children.

There was also an element of complacency in her choice. Hills had never heard of anyone in her small corner of the world contracting a vaccine-preventable illness, so the risk felt low. “I didn’t perceive a threat,” she said.

At her fourth baby’s two-month checkup, Hills delivered the news to their family physician: “We have decided not to vaccinate.” Hills is nearly six feet tall and carries herself with confidence. “When I’m convinced of something, I think maybe I radiate a vibe,” she said. The doctor said nothing, just made a note in his chart and moved on. She was relieved.

Hills wonders now, though, what might have happened if the doctor had taken a curious and non-judgmental approach. “If he had said, ‘Would you like to share with me how you came to that decision? I’m just genuinely interested in hearing.’ I might have been like, oh, OK, well, if you’re not going to berate me for it, sure.” On the other hand, if he had pushed too hard, she might have looked for another doctor.

Hills avoided discussing vaccination with others because she knew, deep down, she wasn’t prepared to defend her position. Any mockery, snide remarks or efforts to persuade her only put her on the defensive, making her burrow deeper into her beliefs.

When Debbie Follis, Hills’s mother, learned that her daughter had stopped vaccinating the children, she was floored. “It scared the beep out of me,” Follis said, censoring herself as she discussed that difficult time. She worried about her grandchildren, but rarely broached the subject with her daughter because, she said, “I didn’t get the impression that it was open for discussion.” She had to tread carefully. “How can you say to somebody that they might be doing something wrong? You don’t want to destroy a relationship.”

Within her family, Hills put a swift end to any conversations about vaccination, making it clear to her mom and brother that efforts to convince her, including the links they sometimes sent over email, were unwelcome. She understands, now, the difficult position they were in. She knows they meant well, but nothing they said or did changed her mind. “It didn’t persuade me, or even instill doubt,” she said. “I just wasn’t ready.”


The decision to stop vaccinating was meant to be temporary, just a pause while Hills looked into it further. “Where I went wrong in hindsight, and it’s painful and embarrassing for me to admit: I didn’t really look into it,” she said. “And then seven years of my life went by.”

During the years Hills spent in what she calls “the valley of indecision,” a measles resurgence was taking place in countries that had previously eliminated the disease, including Canada and the U.S. — a rise attributed to a concerning global decline in vaccination coverage.

In 2014, an outbreak at Disneyland California infected 147 people and spread to 16 states, as well as Canada and Mexico. A large outbreak in an unvaccinated community in B.C.’s Fraser Valley the same year saw more than 400 measles cases diagnosed over three and a half months. Around the same time, a small outbreak in Ottawa entered the orbit of the Hills family.

A mom friend confessed to Hills in a whispered conversation one day that her school-aged children, who were unvaccinated, had been sick with the measles, and their family had been in quarantine, Hills said. The children had developed fever, diarrhea and rashes, but had recovered. Measles is an extremely contagious disease that can be particularly dangerous for babies, pregnant people and those with compromised immune systems. While most people recover, serious complications can occur, including blindness, encephalitis and death.

Hills was shaken by the woman’s story. “The whole time she was talking I was doing the math in my head: where was I around the time when her kids got sick?” Her younger sister had recently given birth to a premature baby. Her sister had chosen not to vaccinate her older children “in large part because of me,” Hills said. “The big-sister influence.” Hills imagined what could have happened if her own children had contracted measles and passed it to her sister’s family. Suddenly, the risks seemed real.

Hills began reading news stories about measles outbreaks. When she reached the comment sections, she was horrified to see the things people said about parents who didn’t vaccinate their children. “People who disapproved didn’t just disapprove; they were disgusted with people like me,” she said. “They thought I was a horrible parent and deserved to be jailed, that my children should be put into foster care immediately, that I should be punished.”

Well, she thought, I’m not talking to anybody about this ever again. She had started to doubt her decision, but the toxic conversations made her uncomfortable asking questions. She didn’t want to be berated, or to have her worth as a parent called into question.

Months passed. In early 2015, Hills decided to take a risk. She shared her fears and uncertainties in a lengthy post on Facebook, the social media platform that, ironically, had been the source of many doubts. The post announced that she was embarking on private study, looking into vaccine safety. She pleaded for respect and kindness.

“While well-meaning (and sometimes just plain mean) friends and family send me links … it’s the rare person, actually no one, who puts their arm around you and validates your concerns, squeezes your hand, looks you in the eye and says ‘How can I help?’” she wrote.

A stranger saw the post and stepped up to do just that. A friend of a friend from high school sent Hills a private message, asking if she could help address her concerns. The friend was a researcher and fellow mom who ran a popular blog, The Scientific Parent, and was “clearly pro-vax,” Hills said, which worried her. “I didn’t want to be attacked.”

“The doubts just kind of settled there and piled up,” Tara Hills, 42, a mother of 10 said of her previous vaccine hesitancy.


“The doubts just kind of settled there and piled up,” Tara Hills, 42, a mother of 10 said of her previous vaccine hesitancy.

But the researcher took a different approach. “Right off the bat, she said, ‘Listen, Tara, you’re a good parent. It’s great that you’re willing to look into this. It’s OK to have questions, and you’re asking good ones,’” Hills recalled. (The researcher now works as a public servant for a government health agency; she declined an interview request.)

Hearing those words — “You’re a good parent” — was disarming. Hills was used to the opposite: “You’re a terrible parent, why haven’t you already done the obvious?” Hills felt instantly at ease. It was like a bomb had been defused. “I didn’t have my hackles up expecting to be censured and attacked and all of my integrity and intelligence and parenting value to be immediately on the line over this one thing.”

The respectful approach opened the door to a conversation. The researcher asked Hills what questions she had about vaccines — something she had never been asked before. Hills didn’t even really have questions, just a general feeling of suspicion, so she started with “I don’t know if I can trust the pharmaceutical interests behind vaccines.”

Hills said she learned from the researcher that while, yes, there were some good reasons to keep a critical eye on pharmaceutical companies, the industry wasn’t profiting off vaccines in the wild and nefarious way Hills thought. Patents on most childhood vaccines had expired long ago, and there wasn’t much money to be made in producing them anymore.

For each answer, the researcher shared her sources, including background from Health Canada, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. She explained the difference between primary and secondary sources and urged Hills to continue her own research. “Look for answers to the questions you have,” Hills remembers her saying. “But I want you to scroll down to the bottom, check the references, and ask yourself, is this a trustworthy source of information?”

Hills said sure, she could do that. The chat had been unlike any other conversation she’d ever had. “She didn’t talk at me. She empowered me to find the information on my own.”

Hills had started her private study believing she would prove herself right. But after two days of research, she turned to her husband and said, “Gavin, I’m not finding it.” She was rattled. “I thought it would be there, but I’m not finding it. There’s no proof for all these claims of harm.”

She found no evidence to support the position she’d taken. “It was just so …what’s the word? Mortifying,” she said. “I was disgusted with myself.” She had to admit that she’d been wrong.


In April 2015, Hills was in isolation with her seven sick children, feeling a mixture of shock, guilt and terror. Some of the kids were coughing so violently they vomited. Hills, then 36, had already changed her mind about vaccination, but one week before the family was scheduled to begin their catch-up shots, they were diagnosed with whooping cough.

“Right now my family is living the consequences of misinformation and fear,” Hills wrote that week in a blog post. “I can only hope this painfully honest sharing will help others.”

Hills shared her story in The Scientific Parent, the blog run by the researcher who had reached out to her on Facebook, in a post titled, “Learning the Hard Way: My Journey from Anti-Vaxx to Science.” Hills hoped that her experience might encourage other vaccine-hesitant parents to seek out trusted sources.

She thought the post might get a few dozen clicks, but it went viral. Millions of people read her story. Her phone rang and rang. Local reporters showed up at her door. She made the news in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia.

Even though she had opened up about her mistakes, the reactions, both online and off, were swift and venomous. People called Hills an unfit parent. They said she had gotten what she deserved. They challenged her integrity, her intelligence and her worth as a mom. They ridiculed her for life choices that had nothing to do with vaccination. It was the kind of condemnation that had kept her from opening up about her concerns for so many years.

The comment sections on the news stories were difficult to read, and they ignored the message of empathy and understanding she had been trying to promote.

What a stupid woman.

If something happens to these unvaccinated children, their parents should be charged with negligence.

Tara Hills, shown at her home in Arnprior, Ont., said she spent years in the “valley of indecision” about vaccines.


Tara Hills, shown at her home in Arnprior, Ont., said she spent years in the “valley of indecision” about vaccines.

This is just a case of an uneducated individual making uneducated choices.

She should be charged with child endangerment and the kids removed from her.

Her neglect here is almost as embarrassing as her decision to have seven children.

Hills lost friends. A neighbour tried to get her family kicked out of their townhouse complex, she said, arguing they had put everyone in danger. “I understand that families in our community may be mad at us for putting their kids at risk,” Hills wrote in the blog post. “I want them to know that we tried our best to protect our kids when we were afraid of vaccination and we are doing our best now, for everyone’s sake, to get them up to date.”

Hills even took abuse from the other side. Some hardcore anti-vaccination types peddled conspiracy theories suggesting she was a “crisis actor” performing the role of a reformed anti-vaxxer.

There were bright spots. Some people commended her, or left food on her doorstep. Others defended her from online abuse. “This woman is being brave by admitting her mistake and setting herself up for public ridicule,” one commenter wrote. “She and her children are now paying the price so she doesn’t need any more blaming.”

The children made full recoveries, to her great relief. Over time, she got them caught up on their vaccinations. After the whooping cough episode, Hills couldn’t go anywhere in Kanata without being recognized. People seemed to view her as a hero or villain, nothing in between. She and Gavin began searching for a new home, somewhere the family could start fresh.

Hills is no longer an anti-vax mom, but she doesn’t want to be seen as a poster child for vaccines, either. For Hills, the real lesson in her story is that the way we choose to talk to people about vaccines — with ridicule and contempt, or with empathy and understanding — may influence whether they make an informed decision, or remain stuck.

She learned her lesson the hard way. “Did I really need to go through an international spanking to learn the value of pushing through your fears, taking action, getting information? Apparently I did. But I’m happy to help others because I think it’s a very relatable human experience.”


Earlier this month, Hills buckled her youngest son into a stroller and walked four blocks from her home, in the small town of Arnprior, Ont., to a high school hosting a COVID-19 vaccine clinic. It was a humid day, and her dark hair whipped around in the warm summer wind. When she arrived at the school, Hills was embarrassed to learn that it was a drive-thru clinic. She was the only person there without a car. One clinic worker radioed ahead to another, saying, “We’re gonna need an escort. There’s someone here on foot, with a baby.”

Hills, now 42, laughed as she told the story later. She was sitting on the front porch of her home, a 135-year-old red brick Victorian near the town centre. Her eldest daughter, Eden, 16, was sprawled on a nearby lounge chair, half-listening to the conversation while playing a game on her phone. Hills and Gavin bought the rundown property soon after their 2015 brush with fame and have spent the past few years fixing it up. They now have 10 children and another on the way, a fact Hills no longer feels compelled to explain or justify. Yes, they have a lot of children; so what? She is older now and comfortable with herself and her choices. She is writing a memoir about having a big family.

Her mistake at the drive-thru vaccine clinic, and maybe the presence of the baby, got her ushered to the front of the line, and she received her COVID-19 shot without having to wait in the heat.

“I didn’t take a sticker,” she said. For one thing, stickers are for children, she said; she’s an adult. But there was also something about the fanfare surrounding COVID-19 vaccines that struck her as a little too zealous, potentially alienating for the undecided.

When the vaccines were first offered, Hills was nervous. “It rose up in me again, this hesitation, this fear,” she said. The fact that, early on, there was limited research on outcomes in pregnant people, added an extra level of uncertainty. (There is now growing evidence demonstrating the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine during pregnancy.) She asked herself, “So what are you gonna do about it this time, Tara?” She remembered the lessons she learned from the stranger who reached out to help her find answers. She searched for information from reputable sources and disregarded claims that weren’t backed up with research. What she found put her at ease.

When Hills hadn’t been vaccinated by early July, her mother started to worry she was becoming hesitant again, but Hills said it was a matter of convenience this time, not confidence. She was on a bunch of wait-lists and never got a call. She wasn’t going to be a vaccine hunter; she figured she’d get the shot when things opened up. She finally got appointments for herself and her four oldest children earlier this month.

There are endless decisions in parenting: disposable or cloth diapers, breast or bottle feeding, this school or that school. Most of them are private matters between spouses or parents and children. Vaccination is different, Hills has learned, because it’s not just a “you do you” situation, as she once thought. She has seen for herself how individual decisions can impact the community. “I wish it was just a private issue,” she said, “because then we could all just leave each other alone.”

Amy Dempsey is a Star reporter and feature writer based in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter: @amydempsey