a shot in the arm

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As we Zoom through the current lockdown it is genuinely heart-warming to know that both the vaccine is, dependent upon your age and condition, winging its way to us sometime very soon and that The Hon. Kate Bingham, vaccine tsar, has hit a rare stride of governmental competence in its successful distribution. I sincerely doff my flat-cap in her general direction and patiently await my turn in the queue to be told “you’ll feel just a little prick”. Again. So, as the proverbial silver bullet is administered nationally, it continues to disappoint me that a fifth of people in the UK remain likely to refuse a Covid vaccination. Why, exactly?     

There is something slightly disturbing about infecting the healthy with a virus or bacteria but large-scale vaccination is the victim of its own success, with the WHO estimating it prevents up to three million deaths globally per year. It has largely eradicated, or dramatically reduced, so many once-deadly diseases such as smallpox, polio, tetanus, rubella, measles, whooping cough, mumps and diphtheria, that large parts of society appear to be suffering from collective immunology amnesia and are happy to place their faith in others’ responsibility for the eventual herd immunity this leads to.

Vaccine hesitancy and scepticism is not supported by historical fact although there have been bad vaccines in the past and 1955 saw a flawed virus containing live polio caused 40,000 cases in the US. Furthermore, inoculations can, at the rate of approximately one per million doses, cause anaphylactic shock, which, at my estimation, means sixty-eight people will suffer such during the pricking of every man, woman and child in the country. Admittedly, I don’t want to be one of the unlucky few but, as more than 100,000 unvaccinated people have already died, it’s a risk I’m more than happy to take.

More prevalent however are spurious scare stories. 1942 witnessed Dr John Wilson explicitly link the whooping cough vaccine with brain damage and the subsequent media coverage saw uptake fall from 77% to 31% despite its later complete discrediting. During the late 90s Dr Andrew Wakefield famously linked the MMR vaccine to autism and levels fell well below the 95% needed for continued herd immunity. Consequently, Britain recorded its first measles death for fourteen years before it was eventually discovered the good doctor had been paid more than £400,000 by lawyers preparing an MMR lawsuit and was unceremoniously struck-off.

Sadly, these instances have had a long-lasting impact on the national psyche and a recent survey of 70,000 by University College London found that 53% wrongly believed vaccines can cause unforeseen effects. It remains clear the case for vaccines needs to be made more effectively, particularly online. Which, together with the car-crash of the EU’s recent Astra Zeneca meltdown, and worldwide vaccine nationalism, make the outlook all the more alarming. Let’s all hope it’s not the shape of things to come and the nation’s willingness to stand, and act, together is essential as we travel down the rocky road to normality.