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Jan Hillard: COVID-19, the flu, smallpox, more and the curious case of anti-vaccination from beginning

Suspicion about vaccines is not new. Opposition to vaccinations dates back to the 1800s when some resisted taking the smallpox vaccine.

People have refused to take vaccines, claiming ineffectiveness, violation of religious practice.

Today some embrace conspiratorial claims such as the COVID vaccine is really secret DNA gathering to control the population (as in the “documentary” Plandemic).

Fears and myths about the COVID vaccine have traction with 20-35% of the public who say they will not take a vaccine once available and 49% say they would probably not get vaccinated (Pew Research, 9/17/2020). Without widespread vaccination, it is estimated that 2 million Americans may die before it’s over. These findings suggest that our best defense against the virus may be rendered ineffective by our fellow citizens.

(Photos from Wikimedia Commons)

A brief journey into the history of the anti-vaccination movement provides context, helping us understand today’s beliefs. In spite of the global achievement that is associated with vaccines, opposition to vaccines dates back over two centuries.

As soon as it was developed in England, large groups of people, including the clergy, resisted taking the vaccine. They claimed the vaccine was dangerous since it came from an animal and included decayed matter. In 1854, the Anti-vaccination League of England was formed. Demonstrations ensued with 100,000 anti-vaxxers descending on Leicester, England to oppose the smallpox vaccine.

In the U.S., the Anti-vaccination League was formed in 1879 in response to mandatory vaccination laws. The group claimed violation of their individual rights to care for one’s own body. In 1905, the US Supreme Court heard a case brought by the League and found that compulsory vaccination laws were Constitutional as a public health measure.

This ruling is applicable to the “personal rights” assertion by current anti-vaxxers. In the 1980s and 1990s anti-vaxxers rallied opposition to the DTP (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus) and MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccines. Some parents claimed that these vaccines caused birth defects, autism, and other incurable diseases. The anti-vaxxer campaign against the MMR was bolstered by flawed research conducted by Andrew Wakefield.

Current public sentiment toward a COVID vaccine shows substantial levels of opposition to a vaccine, even ahead of its availability.

Findings from a recent Pew study capture this profile. As of mid-September, Pew finds that 51% of Americans say they would “definitely or probably” get the vaccine while 49% say they would “probably or definitely” not get the vaccine. Pew finds that the top concerns about a COVID vaccine include, side effects, how well it will work, that there will be no need to take it, and that it will be too costly.

Many are baffled by anti-vaxxers, wondering how a person comes to these beliefs.

Psychologists point to cognitive biases or flaws in thinking and decision-making processes.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is one such cognitive bias. This effect suggests that in the face of widespread fear, some individuals may experience a loss of control and overestimate their analysis skills and level of knowledge. Coupled with little to no understanding of the scientific research process and low acceptance of uncertainty, the Dunning-Kruger Effect produces an almost impenetrable barrier to changing one’s mind. In fact, research shows that intentional efforts, such as public service announcements, can strengthen the impact of cognitive biases further bolstering an individual’s reliance on dis-information and conspiratorial messages.

We indeed find ourselves in disturbing times not only from the physical foe of COVID, but also from the polarization around vaccinations, mask-wearing, and trust of science. An anti-vaxxer at a recent demonstration said, “we would rather not do something and have something bad happen than do something and have something bad happen.”

We may be in the middle not of just a health pandemic, but a pandemic of conscience for which a vaccine isn’t anywhere on the horizon.

Dr. Jan William Hillard is data editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune and retired Faculty Emeritus of Northern Kentucky University.

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