Recently, researchers at the Statens Serum Institut in Denmark released a report on a study of 657,461 children that was supposed to determine whether there is a connection between autism and the MMR vaccine. Unsurprisingly, the study showed that there is no connection between autism and MMR vaccine whatsoever, thus providing even more support for what every credible study has said about the matter. The reason that this particular study is even worth mentioning is because it is one of the largest and longest-running examples of its kind, though it seems safe to say that this won’t be enough to convince those who have an unreasonable fear of vaccines.
Will This Change Anything?
After all, those who have an unreasonable fear of vaccines are being unreasonable. Speaking bluntly, the scientific community has a pretty clear consensus on the safety of vaccines, meaning that said individuals are not basing their beliefs on empirical evidence but rather on their own emotions. As a result, if previous studies were incapable of convincing them otherwise, there is no reason to believe that this particular study will somehow manage to produce a different result in most cases.
Why Are People So Hesitant About Vaccines Anyways?
Unfortunately, vaccine hesitancy is a phenomenon that predates the invention of vaccination. After all, even before Edward Jenner had managed to come up with the smallpox vaccine, there was variolation. In short, the process tended to involve rubbing either smallpox pus or powdered smallpox scabs into superficial scratches in the skin in hopes of producing a milder infection that would be easier for the patient to overcome. As a result, variolation was riskier than vaccination, though still much less so than a natural smallpox infection. However, when variolation started seeing use in Great Britain, a fair amount of the criticism wasn’t based on the risk of the procedure. Instead, it was based on the religious argument that variolation was a “diabolical operation” because diseases were sent by God for the purpose of punishing sins.
Nowadays, vaccine hesitancy seems to be more based on perceived risk. This can be seen in the patterned nature of a significant percentage of modern examples of vaccine hesitancy. In short, some investigator will make a suggestion that a medical condition with an unknown or uncertain cause is a side effect of a vaccine. After which, they will make a premature announcement that finds resonance with people who are either suffering said medical condition or know someone who is suffering said medical condition, thus causing said individuals to underestimate the very real risks of going unvaccinated in preference for focusing on this one statement. Eventually, other investigators will look into the issue, fail to find empirical evidence to suggest the initial claim, and publish their results too late to prevent the damage that has already been done. Theoretically, it is possible for public confidence in the badmouthed vaccine to recover. In practice, well, suffice to say that it can take years and years.
To some extent, it can be argued that vaccination programs have managed to become victims of their own success. In short, it is possible for people to exhibit serious complications from a vaccine. However, the chances of this happening are very, very low, particularly when compared to their chances of serious complications from the disease that the vaccine was supposed to protect them from. Since widespread vaccination means that the consequences of such diseases have faded from the public consciousness for the most part, this means that people are going to focus more on the perceived risks of the vaccine, thus creating a misleading impression of the actual stakes. When public support for vaccination programs weaken, the health authorities become less and less able to enforce their programs, thus increasing the chances for outbreaks. For proof, look no further than the various measles attacks that have been happening in recent times, which are very much consequences of vaccine hesitancy.
With that said, while the nature of vaccine hesitancy is rather well-understood, there aren’t a lot of simple and straightforward ways to overcome it. Certainly, a government could just mandate people to get their kids vaccinated unless they have a legitimate medical reason for an exemption, but it is difficult to imagine any government taking such steps considering the probable uproar. As such, the current state of things could continue for some time until something bad enough happens to shock the public out of its complacency on the matter.