Illustrations by Hannah Robinson

Almost a month ago the UK began its mass vaccination programme against Covid-19, with Margaret Keenan becoming the first person to receive the Pfizer vaccine. Since then, more than 2.2 million UK residents have received their first dose of the vaccine. Whilst news of these early vaccinations may have brought Matt Hancock to tears, it prompted others to shame the programme for “using Granny as a guinea pig”

In November only 42% of Brits said they would ‘definitely’ take the covid-19 vaccine, an 8% growth in hesitancy from the survey carried out in June. Concerns around the impact of vaccine hesitancy have persisted throughout the search for protection against coronavirus and whilst we have heard news of overwhelmingly positive uptake of the vaccine in recent weeks, concerns of the powerful tide of the anti-vaccination movement persist. 

As long as vaccinations have existed, so too has vaccination hesitancy and resistance. Public health efforts to eradicate or control diseases have all been racing against the spread of fear and misinformation.

When Edward Jenner discovered that a mild infection of cowpox could create immunity against smallpox in 1796, his novel ideas instantly, and understandably, faced public concern. Initial fears were exacerbated by the UK’s Vaccination Act of 1853 which made the vaccination of infants compulsory and imposed penalties on those who failed to comply. Following riots across England, The Anti-Vaccination League was established to oppose the act, denounce vaccination as a “foreign assault on traditional order” and resist the perceived violation on civil liberties and personal autonomy. 

Throughout their short and fraught history, vaccinations have faced continuous opposition. A boycott against the pertussis vaccine in the 1970s, sparked by reports that the jab caused child brain damage, reduced the vaccination rate of children from 79% to 37% in just three years. Efforts to vaccinate against polio in Nigeria were labelled by one prominent religious leader as “tainted by [western] evildoers” and contaminated with “anti-fertility drugs and… viruses which are known to cause HIV” triggering a boycott across northern Nigeria. However, perhaps the most prominent vaccination controversy, and the one more widely cited by the anti-vax movement today, was fuelled by Andrew Wakefield’s infamous 1998 spurious study into the MMR vaccine’s alleged links with autism. 

Despite refutation and invalidation, these claims continue to captivate and the use of social media allows health misinformation to reach more widely than ever. With 31 million people following anti-vaccine groups on Facebook, clickbait headlines and personalised content algorithms, internet users are becoming more exposed to public health misinformation than ever before. This is exacerbated by prominent anti-vax celebrities and Trump’s baseless claims that hydroxy-chloroquine cured coronavirus, causing demand for the malaria drug to skyrocket. 

Increased social media usage, growing distrust in government and big pharma, rumours of medical despotism and infringement on civil liberties, have all contributed to the increase in anti-vaccination momentum throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Although the rise in anti-vax rhetoric might appear to be a response to the unprecedented times we are currently enduring, this movement will far outlive this pandemic. The power of the anti-vax movement lies in its inability to accept falsifying evidence against their views. The last twenty years have shown that repeatedly debunking flawed scientific studies is not enough to prevent the rise in anti-vax rhetoric and support. 

The privileged perception of health care as a service, rather than a right, emphasises individual choice and obscures the purpose of vaccination as a public good. When herd immunity through vaccination seems to be the most hopeful promise of a return to normal, “the unhelpful surge of conspiracy theories” circulating internationally could pose a serious obstacle not only for eradicating Covid-19, but for the pandemics of the future. 

If even the best scientific evidence fails to re-establish faith in vaccines, then medical professionals, political leaders and the media need to collaborate to restore public trust. We need to reaffirm immunisation as a collective good: one that ought to be motivated by our desire to protect one another, especially the most vulnerable in society, rather than just ourselves.