Why do richer countries have less trust in vaccinations?

The biggest ever study into attitudes towards immunisation finds a ‘startling’ difference in levels of mistrust

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(Image credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Many people in richer and more developed nations have a lower trust in vaccinations than those in the developing world, according to the biggest ever study into global attitudes to immunisations.

The report by UK-based biomedical research charity the Wellcome Trust found that globally 79% of people still believe vaccines are safe. However, this number drops to just 59% in Western Europe. In Eastern Europe, only 50% of people trust immunisations, the lowest proportion in the world. The highest trust regions were South Asia and Eastern Africa, where the figure was 95% and 92% respectively.

The study found France to have the least confidence in the safety of vaccines of any country, with a third believing they are unsafe. The Trust suggested the French have more scepticism of politicians and a fondness for conspiracy theories.

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“The mistrust is also believed to have also been spurred by the rise of the far right. Marine le Pen has campaigned against compulsory vaccination, arguing that it represents interference by the state,” says The Times.

That’s in stark contrast to Bangladesh, where almost 98% of people believe that vaccines are both safe and effective.

“We expected that general trend, because... scepticism and concern about vaccines tends to be in more developed countries,” said Imran Khan, who led the study. “The extent of the difference is surprising and some of those numbers were really startling.”

The BBC says “there is overwhelming scientific evidence that vaccination is the best defence against deadly and debilitating infections”, but the movement of people who doubt their safety threatens to roll back gains made in disease prevention.

The World Health Organization now lists vaccine hesitancy as one of it top ten threats to global health.

The BBC notes that mass-inoculations completely eliminated smallpox, once a mass killer. And in China, not a single case of indigenous malaria has been recorded since August 2016. By contrast, in the 1940s, before mass immunisation, 300,000 people died each year from the disease.

Measles, once largely eradicated in many places, has been making a comeback globally, including in the United States, “in part due to backlash against immunisation among some groups”, says CNN.

“In addition to poor health infrastructure and lack of awareness, social media has made it easier for vaccine opponents to operate,” adds the news network.

There have been numerous reports linking the rise of populism with a growing mistrust of vaccinations. The new survey suggests anti-vaccine sentiments are a “canary” for mistrust in government, doctors and other authority figures, Professor Heidi Larson, who leads the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told The Independent.

In the survey, people with more trust in scientists, doctors and nurses tended to be more likely to agree that vaccines were safe. Conversely, those who had sought information about science, medicine or health recently appeared to be less likely to agree.

The BBC says the report “does not explore all of the reasons behind low confidence but researchers say there are likely to be many factors involved”.

These involve complacency if a disease has become less common; the risk of side-effects; and the internet which “means beliefs and concerns about vaccines can be shared in an instant, spreading information that isn't necessarily based on fact”, says the broadcaster.

The Independent says “social media becomes an issue when this erosion of trust in experts – or simply difficulty getting appointments with a doctor – leads concerned parents to search for their answers from peers on social media”.

Turning specifically to the UK, where vaccine trust was 4% lower than the global average, Larson says “experts in vaccine beliefs said that relatively high confidence in Britain could ‘mask’ this erosion of trust which is becoming harder to measure as social media becomes more influential in our lives”.

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