I would not say I am a vaccine evangelist (I would not say I am an evangelist for anything other than possibly the music of Kate Bush and the healing properties of milk chocolate) but I strongly believe in their claim to be the most cost-effective of any health intervention.  Perhaps my view was shaped by the fact that my father was disabled for his entire life, after contracting polio as a schoolkid in London in the 1930s, shortly before a vaccine was widely available.

Polio is of course one of those diseases we had thought consigned to history, like smallpox and measles.  But just as the eradication of polio always seems to be a few months away, so measles is resurgent in many parts of the world including the US[i].  Having watched aghast as the anti-vax movement came into being some two decades ago, I always harboured the thought that come the next global pandemic, pragmatism would overcome misinformation and formerly die-hard MMR conspiracy theorists would fall into line (outside an immunisation centre).

Recent history and the widespread levels of hesitancy around the COVID-19 vaccines has proven me wrong, of course.  The global introduction of these vaccines has not gone ideally:  supply disputes, political theatre and the emergence of rare but serious side-effects have caused understandable consternation.  This has in turn fed into the existing concerns of those who may have harboured doubts about vaccines in general, and brand-new ones without years of evidence of their safety, in particular. 

The January 2021 edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer found that only 62 percent of those employed in the healthcare sector said they would be ready to be vaccinated against COVID-19 within a year. This was a lower figure than those employed in many other industries including telecoms, manufacturing, and fashion. And this was before any of the negative stories about the new vaccines had made headlines. 

Perhaps it is the very “newness” of the vaccines that is an issue for many people.  Those who might wait a while before purchasing the latest smartphone or a new model of car (until the “teething troubles have been ironed out”) may take the same approach to a potentially life-saving vaccine.  If that is the case then, as immunisation programmes rollout across the world, we may hope that the sheen of newness begins to rub-off the COVID-19 vaccines. 

And if that is the case, perhaps some of those expressing a lack of confidence and an unwillingness to get their jab, may begin to gain a degree of comfort.  If that happens and the vaccines do succeed in pushing back the tide of the pandemic and facilitate a return to life as we knew it, the COVID-19 vaccines may even become a proof point for the safety of other “new” vaccines in the future.

Carolyn Paul is European Health Practice Chair.

[1] Dimala, C.A., Kadia, B.M., Nji, M.A.M. et al. Factors associated with measles resurgence in the United States in the post-elimination era. Sci Rep 11, 51 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-80214-3