Vaccine Hesitancy: A Historic Recurrence



In the fight against this deadly epidemic, the vaccine remains the world’s best weapon. Science, experience, and history prove that statement. Yet, many are still reluctant to take the vaccine. Thus, more than a year has passed since the start of the covid-19 pandemic, and fear is still blinding judgments while adding fire to the global vaccine hesitancy phenomena. However, vaccine hesitancy isn’t a new phenomenon. The world witnessed it throughout history and during many health crises.

General Public Mistrust

For political, ideological, and other reasons, some people always chose to spread misinformation about the vaccine no matter the era. Thus, since its discovery, most of the public regarded vaccines with suspicion and hostility. However, the primal reason behind this phenomenon isn’t some self-serving agenda or even ignorance. Instead, experts believe that the main reason resides with mistrust.

Vaccine hesitancy has less to do with misunderstanding the science and more to do with a general mistrust of scientific institutions and government,” says Maya Goldenberg, a philosophy expert at the University of Guelph, Ontario.

Therefore, throughout history, anxiety about unnatural substances, government surveillance, liberty violations, faith, infertility, disability, and disease fueled the hesitancy of vaccines. “The reasons people have hesitated reflect the cultural anxieties of their time and place,” Goldenberg stated.

Before the vaccines

When experts looked back on vaccines’ history, many discovered that the recurring hesitancy phenomenon somehow predated the legitimized vaccination procedures. Edward Jenner, an English physician, first conned the term “vaccinae” in 1796 when he studied smallpox. However, the process of triggering mild infection to boost immunity dates back to at least the 1000s in many parts of the world.

In 1783 and during smallpox, about one to two percent of the population died of such procedures. This number is much fewer than the 30 percent who died from smallpox.
However, that event, along with faith objection, set up the stages of public vaccine hesitancy.

Mandatory vaccination law

As history often proves, forcing the public to do something against their will usually yields opposite results. Thus, in 1809, when the United Kingdom passed the first mandatory vaccination law, the public retaliated. During that time, the anti-vaccines group consisted of poor people who rarely received any medical care and were suspicious of ulterior motives. Therefore, general mistrust of the government and science were once again the main factors.

Moreover, such movements continued to grow until they reached almost all of Europe. Therefore, the U.K ended up removing the vaccination-related penalties in 1898. Though this allowed the people to practice their right of choice, it also set an irredeemable milestone for the vaccine hesitancy phenomenon.

Breaking the cycle

When facing the unknown, it is only natural for fear to prevail. However, since COVID-19 is turning out to be a long-term problem, the world must break this centuries-old cycle. There is a vast difference between the small group of anti-vaccination and “the large swath of the population who is hesitant, questioning what is right for them, their families and their children,” stated Brian Zikmund-Fisher, Ph.D. professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan.

Therefore, to break the cycle and spread trust, the world must not only rely on facts but also on empathy. Usually, such behaviors aren’t the product of mere whims but are the results of multiple semi-avoidable factors. Though the lack of knowledge is one of the most prominent challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, the spread of misinformation is far more fatal.

“We know from the psychology of decision-making that people’s risk perceptions are intimately linked to their benefit perceptions,” he added.“If we have a conversation about vaccine hesitancy, we also need a conversation about vaccine need and the threat and seriousness of the disease.”

According to Zikmund-Fisher, experience also plays a vital role. “The fact is COVID-19 is not something most people are experienced with until it’s too late,” he explains. “Until we know someone who is already sick, died, or spread it in our family, we don’t necessarily have that first-hand experience, and that’s one of the things that makes it hard to be concerned about it.”

All in all, history is repeating itself when it comes to the vaccine. However, to overcome the current and future health crises the world must break the cycle of hesitancy.

J. (2021a, February 8). Overcoming COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy. M Health. https://healthblog.uofmhealth.org/wellness-prevention/overcoming-covid-19-vaccine-hesitancyL. (2021b, May 11). Vaccine hesitancy is nothing new. Here’s the damage it’s done over centuries. Science News. https://www.sciencenews.org/article/vaccine-hesitancy-history-damage-anti-vaccinationSchwartz, J. L. (2012, January 1). New Media, Old Messages: Themes in the History of Vaccine Hesitancy and Refusal. Journal of Ethics | American Medical Association. https://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/article/new-media-old-messages-themes-history-vaccine-hesitancy-and-refusal/2012-01


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