Growing anti-vaccination movement linked to rise of populism

Studies show diseases such as measles have soared in countries with strong populist parties

Child being vaccinated
(Image credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The growing anti-vaccination movement directly correlates with the rise of populism across Europe, a new study has found.

A paper published in the European Journal of Public Health has mapped big surges in the number of measles cases to countries where populist parties have become prominent, such as Greece, Italy and France.

Charting an underlying link between anti-establishment politics and opposition to vaccines, the report has suggested that public health officials track populist parties in opinion polls as a proxy signal for vaccine hesitancy.

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“It seems likely that scientific populism is driven by similar feelings to political populism – i.e. profound distrust of elites and experts by disenfranchised and marginalised parts of the population,” writes the author, Jonathan Kennedy from Queen Mary University of London.

Last December, a separate Guardian investigation “showed growing concern about the impact of populism on public confidence in vaccines, revealing that measles cases in Europe were at a 20-year high, with 60,000 cases and 72 deaths”.

It is “no coincidence that anti-vax scepticism has grown alongside the rise of populist parties and social networks, manipulated by mischief-making external actors including Russia,” says the Financial Times.

“Research has shown Moscow was fast to identify vaccination as a deeply polarising topic — ideal fodder for trolls and bots which have been disseminating pro- and anti-vaccination messages online to sow confusion and discord,” says the paper. By contrast “European governments have been slow to understand the risks to their citizens’ public and political health”, it adds.

In France, where more than 20% of the population does not support vaccines, Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Rally party (previously the National Front), opposes mandatory immunisations and has questioned their safety, reports The Economist.

In Italy, the ruling Five Star Movement has pushed a dangerously anti-science agenda, opposing new policies that increased the number of required vaccines and fined non-compliant parents while passing a law to end compulsory vaccines for children in state school.

Nor is it confined to right-wing populists in Europe. Greece, which has been ruled by left-wing government since 2014, has the highest per capita level of measles of any western country.

Meanwhile in the US, Donald Trump has tweeted about the dangers of vaccines more than 30 times since becoming president, and has backed one of the most controversial anti-vaxxer theories: that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine can cause autism.

He even invited the report’s discredited author, Andrew Wakefield, to his inaugural ball.

While an unlikely crossover issue, “Libertarians are now making common cause with the left. Both warn of being duped by the allegedly venal interests of 'big pharma',” says the FT.

While public distrust of vaccinations dates back to the 1880s, “fast-forward to 2019 and the anti-vaccination campaign is a global, multi-faced beast - spurred by safety concerns, religious and political beliefs, preferences for homeopathic approaches and widespread misinformation,” reports CNN.

The World Health Organisation has ranked vaccine hesitancy is one of the top ten greatest threats to global health in 2019.

“Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease - it currently prevents 2-3 million deaths a year, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved,” WHO said.

But the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines, “threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases”, it added.

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