Communicating Science: Why do we still need to talk about vaccination?

“What makes people question, disbelieve and continue to weight advantages and disadvantages of vaccination?” wonders molecular geneticist  and Crastina staff writer Anastasiia Semenova. In this personal reflection, she chooses an inter-cultural approach to understand the standpoint of anti-vaccinationists.

The Crastina theme of September–October 2017 is inter-cultural communication.

Vaccination as we know it has changed the way we see global health and conquer disease. Since eradication of smallpox and minimizing the cases of polio, measles and pertussis, that used to be responsible for millions of deaths every year, it would seem that cultural acceptance and popularization of vaccines would be as easy and well-taken as promoting a new technology piece. Despite the obvious positive impact it has made, vaccination remains a controversial topic for many since its first introduction at Edward Jenner’s times.

Although Jenner wasn’t the first to pick up on the immunity that develops after surviving the smallpox, and witness the effects of variolation practices, results of his experiment, first rejected by the Royal Society, was the first attempt to control the spread of the disease and prevent it by means of immunity. Even though it wasn’t understood at the time, the practice became widespread first in England, and then found its use worldwide. Social controversy that Jenner’s practices raised in the XVIII century is easy to understand – the only information available was that vaccination actually works. The church’s disapproval and political debates were not enough to stop the new practice, and few centuries later we have people who haven’t even been vaccinated against smallpox, writing articles about it. We don’t know if Jenner was aware of what he had discovered and potential impact his practices will have on the world, as well as we don’t know if he expected that surrounding controversy will ever go away. Unfortunately, it is still around.

Anti-vaccination movements arose together with the vaccines themselves, but what makes people question, disbelieve and continue to weight advantages and disadvantages of vaccination? I think most of it comes from the fear. Minus the sharp needles, it has two main sources – lack of knowledge and unfortunate cases. People are very similar in the way we function on a large scale, but in terms of responding to different stimuli, like pain or pathogens, every person is unique. That explains unfortunate cases when ones body does not tolerate vaccination that leads to very rare, but still very unfortunate cases of vaccine-related complications or death. Although rare, those become perfect examples for the ones against vaccination. One grain of truth – in this case, vaccination – is enough to make a lie believable and widespread.

Not everyone is an expert on immunity and statistics – and let’s be honest, not everyone bothers with looking up original sources and checking the information in news reports and internet articles. That’s why explaining how the whole process works, its outcomes and chances of something going south are at most importance when talking about vaccination. Immune system is complex, but everything can be simplified for a general public. You don’t need to major in biology to understand wonderful posters made by Maki Naro

France making vaccination mandatory by law set a good example for dealing with “anti-vaccinationists”, but it can give rise to more controversy, unless a wide informational campaign takes place, that, in my opinion, should begin at primary school level. Soon-to-be-parents should be the most informed and targeted group, especially in countries where vaccination isn’t mandatory, because their decisions can shape global health in the nearest 50 years. My friend, who recently had a baby, said she never had doubts about vaccinating her child, as it is the right thing to do; she made the decision without looking at state kindergarten regulations. All that it takes is school knowledge of how immunity works, reason and supportive doctors. Why can’t it work for everyone?

The anti-vaccination movement has deep historical roots. Already in Victorian England vaccination programmes stirred strong feelings. (Read more)

Probably the biggest recent argument against vaccines has been the claim that there’s a link between vaccination and autism, that first arose in 1998. Although a large number of studies were conducted and disproved the possible link, never mind no statistically accurate back up for it in the first place, it still makes a headline here and there, and remains in the public’s mind. It is understandable, that if such a link exists in a parent’s mind, it will arise questions and doubts, that will be seen as out weighting disadvantages. “Anti-vaccinationists” aren’t generally treated kindly by those who try to prove them wrong, nor willing to listen, which raises the problem of communicating the topic in the first place.

We are yet to find the way to explain not only the biological and medical grounds for vaccination, but the important social and global effects of the vaccination. I believe it is there somewhere between education, consultation, promotion and government support.

About Anastasiia Semenova

Molecular Genetics student from Ukraine, enthusiastic about science and languages.
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