Vaccines are one of the most cost-effective public health interventions, saving millions of lives each year. They are our best chance of eradicating COVID-19, which has had one of this century’s most devastating impacts on humankind, with high death tolls and major disruptions to economies and everyday life. Vaccines historically take years to develop, requiring rigorous safety and efficacy testing. Because the race to develop COVID-19 vaccines globally is progressing rapidly, countries need accelerated efforts for equitable access and timely distribution, especially to those in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). LMICs, in particular, may lack appropriate financing, an enabling regulatory and policy environment, strong supply chain systems, a trained health workforce that is adequately distributed, and other systems necessary to vaccinate large populations quickly. Countries are already making substantial efforts to assess and advance their readiness for COVID-19 vaccines. Success anywhere, however, hinges on whether individuals are willing to accept the vaccine.
Understanding “Vaccine Hesitancy”
According to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization, vaccine hesitancy is a “delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccination despite availability of vaccination services.” In 2019, the WHO identified vaccine hesitancy as one of the leading threats to global health.
Individuals’ refusal of vaccines has limited the control of vaccine-preventable diseases, fostered disease outbreaks, and wasted public health resources. Vaccine hesitancy manifests differently across people, places, and vaccine types, and the reasons for it vary accordingly, from fears of nefarious covert effects to concerns about inadequate testing. For example, in 2003 in Northern Nigeria, outright refusal obstructed polio eradication efforts when extremist Islamists turned their communities against immunization. Religious and political leaders in densely populated states had started rumors that the vaccine was tainted with cancerous agents and HIV. The environment of disinformation, mistrust, and violence culminated in the killings of nine vaccinators in 2013, and entire communities refused polio immunizations. In 2015, after the government of Nigeria and its partners launched aggressive, coordinated vaccination campaigns and immunization services, vaccine hesitancy was reduced significantly and the WHO removed Nigeria from its polio-endemic list.
Erroneous scientific research also can spur doubt among populations, even when a vaccine’s efficacy has already been proven. The measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, introduced to the United States in 1971, led to a sharp decline in mumps cases and the elimination of measles and rubella in the early 2000s. Despite these successes, the vaccine became controversial in 1998, after Andrew Wakefield published a hypothesis that the MMR vaccine can result in autism in children. Wakefield’s work was retracted in 2010 when it was found to be flawed, and later was determined to be fraudulent. Despite the retraction, Wakefield’s assertions have persisted as part of a strong anti-vaccination movement in the United States and Europe, with a quarter of U.S. parents continuing to express hesitancy to the MMR vaccine by delaying or spacing vaccinations, or refusing to have their children vaccinated at all.
Conscious campaigns against vaccines have fueled distrust and limited uptake. In some countries, people have blamed vaccines for sterility or accused international bodies of using vaccines as a tool for covert population control. In Kenya, this issue exploded in 2014: Catholic priests and the Kenyan Catholic Doctors Association accused the WHO of lacing tetanus toxoid (TT) vaccines, used to prevent neonatal sepsis, with pregnancy-related hormones that caused sterility among women of childbearing age. Priests encouraged congregants to boycott the TT campaign; these claims were also taken up by politicians. The doctors’ association claimed to have tested vaccine samples and found human chorionic gonadotropin hormones – which stimulates the body to produce progesterone to maintain a pregnancy – but the laboratory that was used did not have the capabilities for such an analysis. Although the accusations were proven false, the outcry threatened to derail the TT vaccination campaign.