Vaccines have never become more controversial than now, with many people, alongside myself, wondering- will they be our saviours or our ruin in this pandemic?
My family in particular have always been conflicted over this issue, with certain members of my family identifying as hardcore anti-vaxxers whilst others are health professionals who get infuriated by these views. I, myself, as one who doesn’t have a particularly medical or scientific background tended to stuff my ears with cotton at the sound of these conversations, blissfully ignorant.
However, over the past year, especially as COVID-19 started to really hit hard in Australia, a huge dichotomy arose in my family where vaccination views now became integral to the country or even the world’s future? Therefore, I decided to plunge myself into understanding more about what it means to be an anti-vaxxer and why this controversy occurred and has lasted so long. Below is my brief and not systematic in any way, literature review for reflection.
In most of the scientific and medical research I came across, one message was pervaded loud and clear:
“Vaccines are one of the most effective measures of public health practice and prevention medicine, in protecting populations from infectious diseases. They have contributed to decreasing the rates of common childhood diseases and infant mortality” (reference here)
And, of course, the golden egg of public health intervention successes- the complete eradication of one of the most ancient and nastiest diseases, smallpox followed by a near-complete eradication of the paralysing disease, polio. You can read more here. Furthermore, sceptic attitudes towards vaccines are also not a novel, 21st century phenomenon, these movements have been around since the (known) invention of the first vaccine by Edward Jenner in 1796. A lot of the initial scepticism, in true Middle Age culture, was out of suspicions of witchcraft and other unholy affiliations. Much of this was because of the unexplained nature of why inoculation of a weak pathogen (infection-causing organism) in a human should give protection against further infections, in a culture reliant on prayers and herbal remedies after manifestation of disease, rather than before.
Since then, modern anti-vaccination sentiments have been related to three significant events;
The Cutter Incident in 1955: Some batches of the Polio vaccine were actually contaminated with the live polio virus and for some reason weren’t quality checked before being distributed to the public, naturally creating an outbreak rather than protecting against one.
The broadcasting of NBC’s “DPT: Vaccine Roulette” in 1982: A pseudo-scientific documentary which propagated anti-vaccination sentiments by discussing the controversy and all the suspected health risks of vaccines
Ex-Dr Andrew Jeremy Wakefield’s ‘research’ in 1998: The physician has since been struck off the medical register due to his research claiming unfounded conclusions that the MMR Vaccine was increasing autism in children. This is believed to be the reason behind the re-emergence of measles in the UK, USA, Australia and elsewhere over the past decade.
Since then, some of the main reasons cited for vaccine hesitancy are mercury content, autism association and vaccine danger, surprisingly the sensationalism of COVID-19 hasn’t dampened the surge in anti-vaccine searches. Some argue that anti-vaccination behaviours are a number one global health threat in the 21st century. A very interesting study by Huynh and Senger investigated the role of intellectual humility in vaccination sentiments and behaviours. They found that the level of humility in a person (using a multidimensional measure) significantly predicted their anti-vaccination attitudes in a negative correlation. Meaning that, hypothetically, the more intellectual humility one had, the less of an anti-vaxxer they are likely to be.
Misinformation and the spread of sensationalist fake news is a clear component. Results from a national survey of healthcare workers in Italy found that 7% (125 people) refused the vaccine because of lack of trust in vaccine safety (85%) and receiving little (78%) or conflicting (69%) information about vaccines. They also found that more education and awareness resources need to be spent on non-physician health workers to enable them to counter these hesitations effectively. Research in China highlighted the importance of access to vaccination information, especially from professional sources, as being key in working against vaccine hesitancy. Internal migrants are less likely to have access to this.
A survey conducted in 28 European countries, including the UK, deduced that there are three types of, I guess, vaccine identities;
“the skeptical type (approx. 11% of EU27-UK respondents) is defined by the belief that vaccines are rather ineffective, affected by risks of probable vaccine damage, not well-tested, and useless; the confident type (approx. 59%) is defined by beliefs that vaccines are effective, safe, well-tested, and useful; and the trade-off type (approx. 29%) combines beliefs that vaccines are effective, well-tested and useful, with beliefs of probable vaccine damage. The vaccine-confident and the trade-off types profess having similar vaccination histories, indicating the significant role of other factors besides beliefs in inducing behaviour.”
In light of recent events, conspiracy theories regarding the vaccine have ranged from falsely reporting deaths from the Oxford vaccine clinical trials to propositions that Bill Gates is utilising vaccine developments to microchip the population. Therefore, it doesn’t seem that we have come a long way over the past decade, in terms of trust in vaccinations, which I believe, is more of a reflection of how far we’ve come in terms of trust in our governments to care for our health.
Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Identity International.