Medical science has used vaccination as its front-line weapon to eradicate many threatening diseases. Why is there a growing global skepticism towards vaccinations?
Smallpox vaccine, developed in 1796, was perhaps the first miracle cure which saved millions of lives and increased life span of human beings immeasurably. Since then, science has been waging its sustained war on diseases with this most powerful weapon. Immunization is celebrated as the most significant success in medicine. However, slowly but distinctly, a reluctance to be vaccinated is being reported worldwide.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined Vaccine hesitancy as a delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines, despite the availability of vaccination services. This has been reported in one form or the other in more than 90% of countries worldwide.
Anti-vaccine sentiment has been on the rise for a few decades now. The internet is abuzz with rumours, misinformation and conspiracy theories. The most widely spread theory was that vaccinations could cause autism. Other naysayers of vaccinations cite the lack of safety, like the potential of vaccinations to cause serious health complications. Some anti-vaccination activists state that their bodies are pure, and they will not allow any foreign elements in their bodies.
Anti-vaccine activism also arises from being against big- pharma and capitalism. Recent high-profile cases have exposed the profit-centred policies of multinational Pharma companies at the cost of public safety and health. The Johnson & Johnson opioid case is the most recent and celebrated case. Since vaccines with a sustained global use translate into big money, there is an inherent suspicion of the true intentions of the manufacturer.
Religious beliefs are also a major reason. An ingredient list published by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in collaboration with the Institute of Vaccine Safety at John Hopkin’s university caused a furore. The list showed ingredients derived from pigs, dogs, monkeys and aborted foetuses in vaccinations. Scientists have rubbished the fears saying that the quantity is grossly exaggerated by activists. They enrolled the help of religious authorities by showing them how vaccines are made and were able to obtain endorsements that the use of vaccines was not violative of religion.
Some studies show that a person’s political leanings could also affect their outlook towards vaccination. An Australian study showed that anti-government libertarians were most likely to reject vaccinations and persons supporting populist ideas are probably more accepting of vaccinations.
At times, a belief gains traction, which instils fear in the minds of the common man when it comes to vaccination. A clear example is a widespread belief in Pakistan and Afghanistan that polio vaccines are a plot to sterilize them. Consequently, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only two countries where the polio virus remains active and threatens the success of its eradication in the rest of South Asia. These kinds of beliefs are not confined to the developed world in the US; some politicians have been reported to be dismissive of vaccines terming them as “sorcery.” Their contention is that diseases like measles are God’s will, a natural process of strengthening a child’s immune system. Similarly, refusal to accept vaccines is being seen in other western countries too.
According to public health experts, because of the success of vaccinations, people and in many cases, doctors themselves have not seen the severity of a disease, because they may not appreciate the value of vaccination. According to Dr Offit, inventor of rotavirus vaccination, “Vaccines are a victim of their own success.” By eliminating the memory of a disease, it is difficult to understand the need of the vaccination today.
Experts say that the vaccine hesitancy is impacting upon “herd immunity” or the protection of an entire population. As per experts, the optimum scale of protecting a population from a disease in the case of Measles is 95%. Today, in countries like the UK, there is a reduction of this immunity rate at 91%. The US was declared measles free in 2000, and in 2017, a resurgence of measles cases in New York is going to revoke the vaccine free status of the US. These are now turning into a global trend, and today there is a 30% rise in measle cases. WHO has labelled vaccine hesitancy one of the ten biggest health threats.
India too has suffered incidents of vaccine hesitancy. Prior to the eradication of polio in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, there was a belief that vaccinations caused infertility. In 2014, India celebrated the elimination of polio after it conducted successful grass-root campaigns with celebrity outreach and political will power.
- The first efforts to combat Vaccine hesitancy must come from health care professionals and doctors. They must educate vaccine-hesitant parents on the benefits of vaccination.
- The constituents of vaccine-hesitant groups do not belong to a particular demographic segment, and it would be wrong to classify them as a particular stereotype.
- The rhetoric across the spectrum is either of science denial or that of being “all-natural” between these two; the efforts of humanity up until now must not be compromised.
- Misinformation campaigns must be effectively combatted with public health information campaigns about vaccines and what can be achieved.
- Governments must make efforts to create alternative treatment options in the form of AYUSH and many other natural therapies rooted in Indian culture to provide affordable health care to those who don’t trust modern medicines. This movement is already on and deserves to be enlarged.