Vaccine Hesitancy Is as Old as Vaccines. I Take Comfort in ThatRoundup
tags: Vaccination, COVID-19, Antivax
Mr. Motadel is a historian at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Almost 14 months into the coronavirus pandemic, vaccines are, for most of us, the key to getting out of lockdown and returning to lives that we recognize. And with more than a billion doses administered worldwide, there are reasons for hope — even if that hope is not spread evenly.
But for vaccines to work, we need enough people who are willing to take them. There are growing concerns that the United States might soon reach what some experts call the “vaccine wall,” when the problem stops being how to supply enough and starts being how to convince the holdouts — a recent NPR/Maris poll found that one in four Americans would refuse a vaccine if offered. In France, a December poll found that only 40 percent of the population intended to receive one. And rates vary widely around the world.
While I understand the worry that not enough people will get a vaccine to reach herd immunity, I take some comfort in history: Opposition to vaccination is as old as vaccination itself. And despite consistent and often widespread hostility, vaccination campaigns have always, eventually, succeeded.
Take smallpox. When the British physician Edward Jenner introduced his vaccine in 1796, he was promptly hailed as a hero and mocked as a quack. Smallpox had plagued the world for centuries, causing disfiguring pustules, blindness and, in about 30 percent of the cases, death. Variolation — deliberate infection with a milder form of the disease — had been used in some parts of the world, but it was complicated and risky.
Throughout history, critics of vaccines have argued that immunization is more dangerous than disease itself. They have claimed that there are malicious, nonmedical reasons behind vaccinations, such as the profiteering of Big Pharma and biological schemes intended to reduce the human population. And they have been driven by exquisitely complex and diverse reasons: uncertainty, fear, science skepticism, anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism; sometimes they are motivated by profit.
But although attempts to delegitimize vaccines have posed a serious threat to human health, anti-vaccination movements, at least in the long run, have never succeeded in stopping rollouts. The spread of medical information, which took away most people’s fear of the unknown, as well as the actual experience of the successes of vaccinations, have made populations increasingly less receptive to anti-vaccination messaging — even as communicating those messages has gotten easier.
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