Fgetting rid of the fear of a fatal disease is a luxury by historical standards, enjoyed by most Britons. But luxury cultivates complacency. This is one of the explanations for the decline in the number of children receiving routine vaccinations. NHS data released this week showed absorption of the first dose of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to drop from 91.2% to 90.3% in England. This is the fifth consecutive annual decline. This moves the UK away from the World Health Organization’s 95% coverage target – the point of “herd immunity” where collective defense can stifle contagion. Last month, the WHO revoked Britain’s “measles-free” status just two years after that milestone was taken. There were around 1,000 cases last year, double the number recorded two years earlier. Mumps is experiencing a similar resurgence.
There is something particularly troubling about a society choosing to make itself vulnerable to infection. There is no new pathogen to defeat. The means of prevention are available on the NHS. Their rejection points to a different trend – the spread of toxic disinformation online and contempt for science in a culture that has devalued rationalism and expertise. Suspicion about the MMR vaccine peaked around the turn of the century and scared stories of association – completely debunked – with autism. This lie was first defeated by the facts, but is now enjoying a second life online as part of a much larger apparatus of fear and fraud. Parents who search Google or Facebook for information on vaccinations encounter mounds of deception, camouflaged in pseudoscience. Some of them channel the profits to charlatans and charlatans. Some are a gateway to paranoid sites on the far left and far right of the political spectrum. Some people, for whatever reason, just don’t trust vaccines, even though we wish they would. Tech giants have been reluctant to take control of this area as the “anti-vaxx” culture fuels a lucrative advertising market in hokum. Claims of social media companies to be responsible corporate citizens collide with their commercial interest in clickbait poison. Anti-vaxx content may not contain hate speech or glorify terrorism, but it still poses a danger to public health and should be regulated accordingly. Late, some companies act on the threat, but measures are not enough.
Meanwhile, the need to restore collective immunity is forcing the government to consider stronger measures: compulsory vaccination or a requirement of proof of immunization as a condition of occupancy of places in nurseries and schools. Such measures would entail additional bureaucracy and the risk of a counterproductive backlash against the state. These are important objections, but not insurmountable when the associated benefit is preventing epidemics and saving lives. Ideally, information campaigns, combined with more effective postnatal care, would be sufficient to strengthen the defenses against the disease. Not all vaccine refusals are anti-science activists. Many are simply bewildered and lend themselves to persuasion. With the right methods, more can be done to help the facts win this battle before coercion becomes necessary. But there might still come a time when the government may have to draw the line and declare that the refusal of a minority to get vaccinated is a luxury our society can no longer collectively afford.