Vaccine Hesitancy Is a Giant Threat to Global Health and the Conspiracy Theory of Our Times

By Lynskey, Dorian | New Statesman (1996), May 31, 2019 | Go to article overview

Vaccine Hesitancy Is a Giant Threat to Global Health and the Conspiracy Theory of Our Times


Lynskey, Dorian, New Statesman (1996)


It has been 21 years since the British doctor Andrew Wakefield published a paper in the Lancet proposing a connection between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism, and nine since he was struck off the UK medical register, but his discredited research is still bearing poisonous fruit. With hundreds of cases in 24 states, the US is experiencing its worst measles outbreak since 1994. Even Donald Trump, no stranger to half-assed anti-vaccine messaging, has said that children "have to get their shots". The world's leading measles hot spots are as far afield as Ukraine, Brazil and the Philippines, while other preventable diseases, such as polio, are resurgent elsewhere, leading the World Health Organisation to include "vaccine hesitancy" in its ten greatest threats to glob al health for 2019. That's one hell of a legacy.

Opposition to vaccines is perhaps the emblematic conspiracy theory of our times. As soon as the scientific consensus refused to legitimise the "debate", campaigners began framing themselves as heroic truth-tellers fighting to save children from a deceitful medical establishment in cahoots with Big Pharma. It is a short ride from "just asking questions" to Cranktown. After Wakefield was struck off, he headlined a rally called "The Masterplan: The Hidden Agenda for a Global Scientific Dictatorship" and built a new career fuelled by martyrdom and fear. His 2016 documentary Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe carried the tagline: "the film they don't want you to see".

Resistance to vaccines cuts across political lines and takes root in diverse communities. US outbreaks in recent years have afflicted Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, Somali-Americans in Minnesota, the Amish in Ohio and Russian immigrants in Washington State: all tight-knit, self-reinforcing communities that are suspicious of the state and vulnerable to groupthink. "Being a religious Jew, you get used to having a minority viewpoint," a representative of the Hasidic community told Vox. "So if something is not mainstream, it doesn't take you away from believing it." Vaccine hesitancy also thrives among affluent fans of alternative medicine, who pride themselves on bucking the consensus. In Europe, the cause has been taken up by far-right populists such as Italy's Matteo Salvini, who has called vaccines "useless, and in many cases dangerous". Katie Hopkins, a reliable barometer of market opportunities for far-right grifters, recently jumped aboard the anti-vaccine bandwagon by combining scientific illiteracy with fuck-you libertarianism: "You know what is best for your child. Your child is not an animal. The herd is not your concern."

Hopkins was referring to herd immunity, which requires vaccination rates of 92 to 95 per cent to take effect. In some parts of the US, where vaccination is mandatory but exemptions for religious and personal beliefs proliferate, the rate among kindergarten pupils has fallen below 50 per cent. …

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