Do politics and vaccines make strange bedfellows?

A topic of increasing concern in the last year has been the hesitancy of some parents to vaccinate their children. As close as Blackrock, preventable diseases such as measles have seen a resurgence warranting public warnings. As with any scientific advances, there is a community of deniers, despite overwhelming evidence in favour of vaccines. Recently, a study found that there is a correlation between those likely to display a hesitancy toward vaccinations and for those same people to show support for populist parties in their respective countries. In the study carried out by the European Journal of Public Health, the Irish populist party used was Sinn Féin.

Across Europe in recent years, the MMR vaccine has seen a decline in certain countries. MMR, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella, saw its biggest decline in Italy, where 90% coverage fell to 85% over 3 years from 2013-2016. This is owed mainly to the 5 Star Movement, the right-wing anti-establishment populist party there, founded by a comedian in 2009. Similarly, one of the most famous populist elected in recent years, Donald Trump has condoned the anti-vaccination groups and given them a platform to reach more with their message.

The mainstream disdain for vaccines stemmed from a 1998 article in an esteemed medical journal. British surgeon Andrew Wakefield published an article in the Lancet claiming that there was a link between an increase in vaccines and autism in British children. An investigation was carried out which completely debunked and discredited Wakefield’s assertion. The lack of evidence combined with the financial involvement of external parties led to Wakefield’s licence being revoked. Despite this overwhelming evidence against the original article, and no test ever proving the claim, the seed had been planted. In Ireland alone, measles saw an increase of 244% from 2017 to 2018.

In Ireland alone, measles saw an increase of 244% from 2017 to 2018

Of course, a correlation has been found, but there needs to be causation for the findings to be significant. Basically, is there a reason for this link, or is it purely coincidental? The principal reason offered was a profound distrust in elites and experts, which was seen as a disenfranchisement of “the system”. With a belief that the establishment doesn’t have their best interests at heart, people resort to alternatives, with essential oils being popular to fight diseases, and populist parties being the alternative to traditional political parties. UNICEF reported increases in the same period in 98 countries across the world, and in the last 20 years there has been a threefold increase in support for populist parties across Europe.

The causation depicted by the study is one which is already being exploited for financial and political gain. Data harvesting companies such as the now-infamous Cambridge Analytica and social media firms like Facebook have already been using the interests of certain demographics to bombard them with ads which are likely to appeal directly to them, effectively narrowing the audience. This works by playing on biases already held by parts of the population to entice them further.

Poundstone found that 20% of every surveyed audience is likely to believe any conspiracy presented to them

There is a system called Mosaic in the UK which aims to make marketing more efficient by compartmentalising people based on location, profession, interests etc. One group that uses Mosaic are credit card companies, but this may sound counter intuitive. The credit card companies did not seek those who were most financially stable, or financially knowledgeable. Instead, they sought homes where “the interest in current affairs is low. They are educated to a low degree.” People targeted to receive advertisements for credit cards are “likely to be interested in adverts for financial products” because they were seen as most likely to take advantage of easy credit.

Independent facts such as those presented thus far, may not be as independent as we suspect. William Poundstone outlines in his book Head in the Cloud the seeming proportionality between general knowledge of an individual and the income of the same person (within reason). Poundstone found that 20% of every surveyed audience is likely to believe any conspiracy presented to them. Some people appear to be predisposed to believe conspiracy theories regardless of the evidence presented. It was found, for instance, that people who believe Princess Diana faked her death are also more inclined to believe that she was murdered by a member of the royal family. This again displays the same lack of faith in the mainstream; an unwillingness of people to conform to the beliefs of those around them.

Donald Trump has condoned the anti-vaccination groups and given them a platform to reach more with their message

The link between vaccine hesitancy and populist politics is apparent, but the danger involved is yet to be made totally clear. While the majority still believe in the importance of vaccinations, it is with great concern that the future must be approached. Throughout history, eventually the accepted scientific model on a subject became the internationally accepted model. For example, only a small minority would deny that the Earth revolves around the Sun today. Yet the belief that the Earth is flat gained traction in recent years despite the overwhelming evidence against it. The main lesson to take from this is to trust in the prevalence of common sense, and to ensure that we take care of ourselves first to protect ourselves against the potential dangers wrought by others.