Significant link between vaccine resistance and the rise of European populism

Significant link between vaccine resistance and the rise of European populism
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According to a study by Queen Mary University of London, there is a substantial association between the increase of European populism and the level of mistrust and corresponding vaccine resistance.

The analysis found a highly significant positive association between the percentage of individuals in a country who voted for populist parties and the percentage who believe that vaccines are not important and not effective. Does this mean European populism has the ability of affecting the publics views regarding vaccine resistance?

What did they find regarding European populism and vaccine resistance?

Lead author Dr Jonathan Kennedy from Queen Mary University of London explains: “It seems likely that scientific populism is driven by similar feelings to political populism, for example, a profound distrust of elites and experts by disenfranchised and marginalised parts of the population.

“Even where programmes objectively improve the health of targeted populations, they can be viewed with suspicion by communities that do not trust elites and experts. In the case of vaccine hesitancy, distrust is focused on public health experts and pharmaceutical companies that advocate vaccines.”

Details of the study

Published in the European Journal of Public Health, the study examined national-level data from 14 European countries. This data included the percentage of people in a country who voted for populist parties in the 2014 European Parliament elections, and the percentage of people in a country who believe that vaccines are not important, safe and/or effective, according to data from the 2015 Vaccine Confidence Project.

In the research article, Dr Kennedy writes that modern vaccine resistance is usually traced to Andrew Wakefield’s now discredited 1998 Lancet article, which claimed a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism.

MMR vaccination rates in the UK fell from 92% in 1995 to a low of 79% in 2003, well below the 95% rate needed to achieve herd immunity. Confirmed cases of measles in England and Wales rose from 56 in 1998 to 1370 in 2008.

Wakefield was struck off the UK medical register and the Lancet study retracted. Nevertheless, his ideas remain influential and are cited as a reason why measles cases have increased in Europe over the past few years.

European populism and the spread of vaccine resistance

According to Kennedy, there is additional anecdotal evidence suggesting a connection between the rise of populist politicians and political movements in Western Europe and increasing levels of vaccine resistance and hesitancy.

One of the most prominent examples is Italy. The Five Star Movement (5SM) have raised concerns about vaccine safety and the link between MMR and autism. It is argued that these concerns caused MMR vaccination coverage to fall from 90% in 2013 to 85% in 2016, and resulted in an increase in measles cases from 840 in 2016 to 5,000 in 2017.

Despite this, the upper house of the Italian Parliament—supported by newly elected representatives from 5SM and League—recently passed a law to repeal legislation that makes vaccines compulsory for children enrolling in state schools.

In France, the right-wing Front National have also raised concerns about vaccine safety and laws that make childhood vaccinations mandatory.

And in Greece, the left-wing SYRIZA government proposed that parents should be able to opt out of vaccinating their children.

While UKIP has not expressed similar concerns regarding vaccination resistance, a poll conducted by Mori showed UKIP voters were almost five times more likely than the general population to believe that MMR was unsafe.

Dr Kennedy concludes: “Vaccine hesitancy will be difficult to resolve unless its underlying causes of populism—an iniquitous economic system and unrepresentative political system—are addressed.”

Research details

Research paper: ‘Populist politics and vaccine hesitancy in Western Europe: an analysis of national-level data’ by Jonathan Kennedy. European Journal of Public Health. DOI: 10.1093/eurpub/ckz004

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