Anti-vaxxers: an Achilles heel in Government campaigns to curb the spread of COVID-19

Inspired by my lecturer, Dr Michael Bresalier, and his modules over the previous two years, I decided to undertake a dissertation in my final year of my undergraduate degree that explored the relationship between disease and the responses used to tackle the Great Influenza Pandemic specifically in New York City. This experience ignited my fascination in the history of medicine. This fascination has caused a deep-rooted interest in the cause of the growth in the anti-vaccination movement that has occurred during the past year, amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic. Ever since the first inoculation of Smallpox by Edward Jenner in 1796, vaccines have been an integral part of our relationship with disease and have led to the curbing of major infectious diseases such as Measles, Smallpox and tuberculosis. Yet there has been a growing distrust in vaccines in the past year, across the globe there have been alarming figures regarding the COVID-19 vaccines. Only 77 per cent of people in Britain showed willingness to have the vaccine during a survey, in the US it was as low as 69 per cent and it has reached a worrying 40 per cent among the French public.[1] This blog aims to uncover some of the underlying reasons for the growth in the anti-vaccination movements through looking at factors such as the growing distrust of elites, the impact of social media and the lack of living memory of infectious diseases, I aim to shed a light on what some academics have called ‘a Regression in Modern Medicine’.[2]

While studying the harsh reality of the Great Pandemic within the Big Apple I came to understand the impact disease had on medicine, and the faith that is bestowed in medicine. Influenza provided a crucial challenge to the faith in bacteriology, and the bacteriological systems that have proven to be so mighty in the century leading up to the global outbreak, through the production of an undetectable virus. Yet, unlike the Great Pandemic, we are now equipped with the tools to detect viral pathogens. Furthermore, we have had numerous encounters with viruses such as SARS, and MERS in recent times which have provided us with stark evidence of the impact viral agents can have on society. In conjunction with such tools, we have seen the impact vaccinations have had in curbing the spread and providing herd immunity against virulent pathogens. Vaccines have even played a key role in the eradication of one of the deadliest diseases, smallpox, through the combination of mass vaccination campaigns, contact tracing and ring vaccinations of all possible cases to seal off outbreaks from the wider population.[3] As a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic, we have seen the mobilisation of similar approaches and the role of mass vaccinations increase across the globe. This has affected us all, my grandparents recently attended their allocated slots at their local mass vaccination centre, one of more than thirty centres across the UK which have already vaccinated 3.5 million individuals.[4] Yet, people are still not showing up, while waiting for my Grandpa, my Grandma was asked to have her vaccine due to the vast numbers of people not turning up to the allocated slots.

Even though the evidence for the success rate and crucial nature of vaccines in our fight with pathogens, there has been a growth in anti-vaccination movements globally. My concerns of this growth may be amplified by social media exposure to these ideas, posts, and pages. An article within the Lancet has highlighted the key role social media platforms have played in magnifying these voices. Platforms have provided an unchallenged and legitimate position for harmful discourse around fights against COVID-19, which has killed 2.19 million people as of the 29th of January 2021 and infected 101 million worldwide. Our go-to social networks, such as Facebook, host a colossal 31 million people following anti-vaccine groups and a further 17 million people have subscribed to channels of a similar nature on YouTube.[5] Our lust for conspiracies, distrust in the elite and fear of the unknown has created a huge economic income stream for our social network companies. The CCDH have calculated Anti-Vaccine groups could provide 1 billion US dollars of revenue for firms and 989 million dollars for advertising on Instagram and Facebook alone.[6] The platform is there, and the economic incentives to maintain these platforms are evident. I do not want to dismiss genuine concerns, and the airing of fears around vaccines because discourse can be a real means of coming to terms with these issues. As noted in Inception (Nolan, 2010), like a virus, these ideas and conspiracies are resilient, highly contagious and can spread through populations presenting resistance to important campaigns such as the COVID-19 vaccination programme. What I do not understand is, despite such credible evidence for the success and need of vaccines, the underlying driving forces behind the anti-vaccination movements.

One of the possible reasons for this growing anti-vaccine movement is a lack of living memory regarding major infectious diseases. I personally have never had to worry about diseases such as smallpox due to its eradication and the CDC has highlighted fourteen other diseases that have almost been forgotten about due to the successfulness of vaccines. I have managed to walk through life, with only a numb arm several times and have been granted the freedom to forget about what were previously deemed deadly and widespread diseases. Diseases such as Polio, Tetanus, Hepatitis A and B, Rubella, HiB, Measles, whooping cough and Rotavirus are just a few almost forgotten illnesses.[7] While they are not eradicated, the protection provided by vaccines has allowed us to walk uninhibited from the shackles of infectious diseases that previous constrained and restricted our society. Richard Conniff has highlighted, vaccines has reduced the threat, but have also made us lax around the idea of disease and the real threat to both life on a societal level but also a personal level.[8] I fully agree with Conniff and believe the growth in anti-vaccination movements are a prominent manifestation of this lax attitude towards infectious diseases. Fears of autism have overshadowed the fear of measles, a disease that has resulted in 33 of every 100,000 people infected having mental and central nervous system damage.[9] A fear that is routed in no connection between vaccines and autism. The ever-growing distance between us, and these harsh, cruel and relentless infectious diseases is only going to fuel anti-vaccination movements through the installation that infectious diseases are an irrational fear.

Our government, especially Labour, have advocated for the clamping down on fake news surrounding the COVID-19 Vaccine. Labour have called for an emergency law that would penalise social media firms that do not control the remove and censor false scare stories about vaccines.[10]

This sentiment has solidified itself in the anti-vaccination movement so deeply that even when presented with disease, such as COVID-19 where the effects are evident, there are still large swathes of people that refuse and are not willing to take vaccines. A vaccine has become an individual decision linked to personal politics which defies the objective of a tool designed to improve the security and wellbeing of a community. We have become detached from the harsh reality of life without vaccines. I do not want to dismiss or incriminate individuals that cannot have the vaccine, but that is the point that has been lost as it is those who will suffer because of conspiracy theories, distrust and disconnection with our disease riddled past. It is individuals that are unable to take the vaccines that are disproportionately affected, an irrational fear of ours is a disease that can dire consequences for others and we do these individuals a disservice by ignorantly refusing to take vaccines. As I have learned throughout my degree and during my dissertation, disease has shaped our lives and society, and the power they have must not be underestimated or regarded as an unfounded fear.

[1] Kim Willsher, (2020) ‘Covid: France ‘pandering to anti-vaxxers’ with slow vaccine rollout’, The Guardian, Available at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/31/covid-france-pandering-to-anti-vaxxers-with-slow-vaccine-rollout, Accessed January 29th 2021.

[2] Azhar Hussain, Syed Ali, Madiha Ahmed, and Sheharyar Hussain (2018), ‘The Anti-vaccination Movement: A Regression in Modern Medicine’, Cureus, 10(7), Available at 10.7759/cureus.2919, Accessed 29th January 2021.

[3] WHO (2016), Smallpox Vaccines, available at https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/smallpox-vaccines, Accessed 29th January 2021.

[4] BBC (2021), ‘Covid: 10 new mass vaccination centres to open in England’, BBC, Available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-55692321, accessed 29th January 2021.

NHS, (2021), More than 30 new vaccination centres join biggest NHS jab drive, Available at https://www.england.nhs.uk/2021/01/more-than-30-new-vaccination-centres-join-biggest-nhs-jab-drive/, accessed 29th January 2021.

[5] Talha Burki, (2020), ‘The online anti-vaccine movement in the age of COVID-19’, The Lancet, 2(10), Available at https://doi.org/10.1016/S2589-7500(20)30227-2, accessed 29th January 2020.

[6] Talha Burki, (2020), ‘The online anti-vaccine movement in the age of COVID-19’, The Lancet, 2(10), Available at https://doi.org/10.1016/S2589-7500(20)30227-2, accessed 29th January 2020.

[7] CDC, (2020), ‘Diseases You Almost Forgot About’, Available at https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/parents/diseases/forgot-14-diseases.html., Accessed 29th January 2021.

[8] Richard Conniff (2019), ‘The world before vaccines is a world we can’t afford to forget’, National Geographic, Available at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2019/08/cannot-forget-world-before-vaccines/, Accessed 29th January 2021.

[9] Richard Conniff (2019), ‘The world before vaccines is a world we can’t afford to forget’, National Geographic, Available at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2019/08/cannot-forget-world-before-vaccines/, Accessed 29th January 2021.

[10]Marianna Spring (2020), ‘Covid-19: Stop anti-vaccination fake news online with new law says Labour’, BBC, available at https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-54947661.