Combatting Vaccine Hesitancy

Illustrated by Parveen Dhanoa

Arachnophobia? A valid fear: the long legs and erratic movements of tarantulas are enough to send chills down my spine. Heights? Also reasonable— just the thought of bungee jumping makes my stomach queasy. But vaccination? It’s surprising that the agent responsible for eradicating such fatal diseases as smallpox is at the root of great controversy. The polarizing topic of vaccination is an emotionally driven one— anti-vaxxers are often governed by narratives and a general distrust in institutions as opposed to statistics. The threat of compromising personal morals is enough to create considerable hostility between sides. By gaining insight into the origin of vaccine hesitancy, advocates of immunization may be better prepared to challenge these reservations or fears with alternate methods.

Disbelief in the efficacy of immunization is not new. In fact, vaccine hesitancy has been resurfacing every few decades since the creation of vaccines in 1798. Edward Jenner is credited for the first implementation of a vaccine, after placing pus from a cowpox lesion into a young boy’s arm and finding the boy was effectively immune to the smallpox virus. This differed from the practice of inoculation, a widespread method of preventing disease that is ancient in origin, but was isolated mainly in Asia up until that point. Inoculation, specifically that of smallpox, involved placing the virus itself into the patient’s skin in the hopes that they would build an immunity to it once having survived mild symptoms of the disease. Jenner’s alternative method of disease prevention spread quickly in America and Europe due to its increased safety and reduced chances of complications, but received pushback in India, where inoculation had become a somewhat ceremonious practice. 

These inoculation procedures were tied with the Hindu religion, so it was no surprise, then, that when white colonists came along attempting to discredit inoculation, many Indians resisted vaccination. Other factors such as Hindus holding cows as sacred animals— the smallpox vaccine came from cows— also played a role in early vaccine hesitancy. Doubt, misinformation and cultural beliefs were all factors in the eradication of smallpox in India, which didn’t come until 1975, as one of the last countries to do so despite having been introduced to the vaccine nearly two centuries prior. 

Today, resistance to vaccination still remains prevalent amongst the parents of newborns. One of the most famous causes for this has been the belief that vaccinations are a cause of autism. This idea stems from the fear of the mercury-based preservatives found in multi dose vaccines, one such preservative being thimerosal. An early study claimed that the mercury uptake associated with vaccines caused autism, creating a panic as the news spread rapidly through the media. In haste, this primary study overlooked important factors, including the fact that reporting bias may have played a role in the experimental results. The population of those who reported their children having autism after being vaccinated had opted into the survey, inherently making the data biased. Ultimately, this study, as well as others, failed to provide any significant evidence proving a cause-and-effect relationship between autism and vaccination as confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nevertheless, parents continue to withold their children from immunization. 

While autism is not a result of vaccination, several parents argue that their children have suffered conditions such as epilepsy and arthritis due to vaccines. Though valid in their conviction regarding the safety of their children, ignoring the collective benefits of herd immunity via widespread vaccination feeds into omission bias, or “the idea that causing harm through action is less acceptable than harm that results from inaction.” The line between infringing on personal beliefs and advocating for collective societal benefit becomes unclear when certain parents contend that their children should not be vaccinated because of lifestyle choices, such as veganism. Similar to Indians in the early 19th century, some vegans prefer not to have their children have any animal products in their system.

So how can advocates of vaccination assert their opinions to others who may be hesitant— without minimizing the real, albeit rare, side effects and opinions associated with immunization? Certain European countries have recently begun drafting legislation that forces their citizens to vaccinate: Italy established vaccines as a requirement for children registering for school, and Germany proposed a fine to be levied on those who elected not to receive the measles vaccine in light of recent, preventable outbreaks. Government involvement is often perceived as imposing on one’s rights, so other small-scale strategies may be utilized to hopefully yield the same effect. 

Discrediting media’s fake news as it pertains to vaccines causing autism would help eliminate a major source of this controversy. Providing concrete evidence to those who are doubtful, or those who cling to stories that instill fear, rebuilds trust between vaccine manutfacturers/distributors and parents. Where comprehensive education is not as effective, like in the case of some vegans and those who have experienced side effects in the past, other approaches may be more beneficial. Sparking a dialogue with vaccine skeptics to understand their idealogies may serve as the foundation for open mindedness and the acceptance of differing opinions. Just as Indians in the 19th century were deterred from vaccinations because they were being forced upon them, anti-vaxxers who feel attacked by insensitive comments and assumptions will be less inclined to aknowledge the benefits of the other side. By removing the hostility between anti-vax people and vaccine supporters, we can hope that expressing the belief in herd immunity, or prioritizing the community’s health over the individual’s, will be adopted by more people over time.

Edited by: Edward Toderescu

Illustrated by: Parveen Dhanoa

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