Let me begin with a potentially controversial statement: anti-vaxxers are a manufactured problem.
Growth in these groups is often associated with the recent spikes in confirmed cases of measles, attracting a lot of public attention. This is an extremely useful narrative. It gives us a group to blame when we see people dying from completely preventable diseases. Unfortunately, this can hide other important problems.
Haredi Jewish communities in London have been the target of scrutiny. Many, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), have noticed lower vaccination coverages within these groups. This is a significant problem. The MMR vaccine offers 97% coverage against measles after two injections. This might make it sound like we are almost immune to the disease, but if it can grow more numerous in pockets of unvaccinated people, we are all more at risk.
I believe that there has been some misinformation about why this has happened. For one thing, talking points focusing on the religious aspect of this case have moved the narrative to an unhelpful place. The WHO has confirmed that there was no religious aspect to the low vaccinations. The problem is instead caused by the large numbers of children in these families. For many, waiting times in hospitals were simply not practical.
The problem regarding lack of access and the troubles faced by the NHS are well known but somehow seem to take second place in this discussion. Those responsible for the immunisation of children are under incredible pressure. There is a shortage of nurses with the required training for vaccinations and MMR vaccine supplies are carefully distributed around the country. Perhaps we can argue, then, that low vaccination coverage is due to a problem of access. It is not only unhelpful to give more attention to the ‘sceptics’, but it is also an inefficient way to solve the problem.
Beliefs relating to negative side-effects of vaccines can be largely traced back to a single paper published in 1998. Not only was this paper retracted almost a decade ago, but it has since been repeatedly and thoroughly debunked by the scientific community. Using evidence against these groups is no more effective than beating a dead horse.
The reason these groups still exist is not because of a lack of proof, but because we somehow expect evidence-based campaigns to work. It is inefficient to spend public funds like this when so many who do want to be vaccinated are still unable to.
The UK published its measles and rubella elimination strategy this January. Many human factors causing low vaccination coverage have been discussed very extensively. Cultural training, hiring Haredi nurses and improving access to vaccines are improvements needed to make London a safer city. The rest of the campaign, however, appears to remain focused on an evidence-based fight against vaccine hesitancy. In an environment where public health is underfunded, shouldn’t we prioritise those who can’t rather than those who won’t?
Increasing vaccination coverage is in everyone’s interest. It is the bare minimum we can do as a society for those who are most vulnerable to infectious diseases. The eradication of measles represents the drastic change we can cause as a collective. However, we should not allow this goal to guide us blindly at the risk of unfair generalisations and giving platforms to loud minorities. There are people who want access to vaccination and still can’t easily obtain it. That should be our focus, not conspiracy theorists.
Image credit: Angelo Esslinger via Pixabay