Why people turn against vaccines

Old diseases are on the rise; old deadly, debilitating diseases that due to antibiotic resistance become harder and harder to treat; illnesses that with certainty will leave you either dead or crippled.

There is a weapon, but people choose not to use it despite its proven effectiveness: vaccines. Why are people turning against vaccinations and science? Is it miscommunication from scientists or are other underlying societal mechanisms at play? This is what I found after having talked to several vaccination-doubters where I live.

The anti-vaccine movement

Some people are convinced that vaccines are the source of all evil, a tragic misunderstanding leaving many deaths in its wake. So what happened? How did this fundamental misunderstanding arise?

A paranoid fraction of society has always existed with people believing that there are thought control and unicorns, but I am not referring to this tinfoil brigade, but to ordinary, sensible people who suddenly decide to believe abhorrent things.

A child being vaccinated against measles (image credit: Julien Harneis)

Vaccination against measles (image credit: Julien Harneis)

Someone in a lab coat is telling you what to do with the most precious thing in your life: your child

People have gotten used to not trusting authority, and though this might in some cases be a good development for a society, there are side effects to this like a very generalized and misdirected distrust in scientists and medics. I suppose that it is in some cases easy to understand: we babble weird things, write in a language that only vaguely resembles English and sit lab coat and arrogance clad in our ivory towers. This can be easy to dislike, but it is a reason for distrust?

Researchers spend years studying certain topics and have developed acute skills in spotting flaws in studies if not for improving science, then at least for taking down and discrediting the competing research groups (yes, science can be a sand-box). It is our job to discover flaws and I would trust the advice given by such an authority a great deal more than a celebrity whose only exposure to science was a paper volcano at the 6th graders science fair in 1985.

Embryonated_chicken_egg-10759_lores (1)

Looking super scary! In reality, he is probably thinking about lunch and that his head itches from the uncomfortable head gear…(image credit: CDC/ Laura R. Zambuto, James Gathany)

The involvement of children also plays a significant role in the fear of vaccines: an authoritative person in a white lab coat is telling you what to do with your child. That is scary. It is so scary that it is easier to turn to a person with a soothing voice and loving demeanor, no matter how many clichés and deadly factual errors this person spews out, like a rotten platitude-guacamole.

Syringes are the spawn of the devil

I believe that the involvement of needles in vaccination ends up causing a psychological glitch provoking people to turn off their critical thinking in favour of fear. Syringes and needles are mentally very powerful things for people. I touched a bit about this in my video on the placebo effect; saline solution injections are very successful in treating pain in humans. Also, a saline water injection is much better against pain than a sugar pill. Since the placebo effect associated with syringes and injections is considerable and most likely the nocebo effect as well.

The nocebo effect is the evil twin of the placebo effect; if you expect negative symptoms to occur, they will do so. The nocebo/placebo effect should not be dismissed as only affecting people who are dumb and gullible. These effects are independent of economic status, education and intelligence; if you expect to get severe side effects a day or two after your injection, you will increase your chances of actually developing one.

I think that if all vaccines were given as pills instead of as injections, the resentment would not be as large as it is today. How many people do you know with fear of needles?

Most people will cringe when looking at this image. It has very little to do with the vaccine and very much to do with the syringe (image credit: ruurmo (vacuna))

Most people will cringe when looking at this image. It has very little to do with the vaccine and very much to do with the syringe (image credit: ruurmo (vacuna))

Why a scientist must be honest

Some vaccines, in fact, do have side effects.  Because science tends to use words that have dual meanings in common language, these side effects are often miscommunicated and misunderstood.  This breakdown in communication concerning vaccine side effects is, in my view, a contributing factor in the general mistrust of scientists. Because of this lack of communication and understanding, both by scientific medical professionals and the public at large many people who actually do get sick might experience not only that their symptoms and problems are minimized, but they are often labeled as liars and might as a consequence, gravitate towards anti-science, anti-health quackery sites who prey upon ignorance and the mistrust generated by the scientific community.

I have a chronic illness (endometriosis) and have been (in my eyes) quite mistreated by many doctors. I have too experienced the dismissal of my own chronic symptoms as psychosomatic (all in my head) and can vouch for the validation one can feel when finding a community that acknowledges the symptoms one experience rather than having them dismissed.  When I found patient support groups with diseases similar to my own, I felt suddenly validated. This “community” could just as well be an online anti-vaccination site.

Once you get wrapped into the anti-vaccination movement’s warped logic, it is hard to exit since who wants to come publicly to terms with having put one’s children at such risks? Also, many of the anti-vaccination groups behave like religious fanatics; several of my skeptics colleagues have been threatened just because they politely asked for peer reviewed studies as proof for their claims. It is utterly unpleasant.

We need to understand why people turn against vaccinations for us to change this deadly trend.

Smallpox pustule gauge: a device luckily no longer used due to the smallpox vaccination program (image credit: Wellcome Trust)

Smallpox pustule gauge: a device luckily no longer used due to the smallpox vaccination program (image credit: Wellcome Trust)

A short note on anti-vaccination arguments

The benefits outweigh the costs: a brief lesson in basic statistics

There are unfortunately side effects with everything in life, and everyone reacts differently. Even everyday items such as band-aids can result in deadly allergic reactions, but no one gets their knickers in a twist over the use of bandages and plasters in a hospital! This is where statistics comes into the question:  the benefit outweighs the cost by far. This is the same for vaccines. A handful of people might get allergic reaction, many others get a sore arm and a bit of fever (which really is a signal that the vaccine actually worked) but let me compare this with the almost 200 000 Diphtheria cases (mostly children) and 200 000 cases of pertussis in the US alone in the pre-vaccination era.

If you are interested in the reduction in disease frequencies in the US between 1936-2006: HERE; vaccine side effects: HERE). However, you might wish to take a look at the symptoms of the illnesses too before making your decision:  tetanusdiphtheriapolio and many more…

These old illnesses are no longer of our concern: they are eradicated – WRONG!

I am aware of the argument in which many people claim these illnesses to be so reduced that they are no longer of concern. This is, unfortunately, untrue and despite my wanting to believe it almost as much as I want to believe that red wine will bring me everlasting youth, it remains false. These diseases are only rare because of the vaccines. Sanitation has nothing to do with this decline in infection rates as the incidence of these diseases have dropped in many underdeveloped countries despite there being no changes in hygiene practices. Increased vaccination coverage is the only explanation for the reduction in disease prevalence. This pattern can be seen all over the world.

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Also, the argument that some flu vaccinations are not necessary is logically faulty since we have no way of knowing what would have happened had we not vaccinated. Finally, herd immunity is incredibly important for society and for the people who due to different illnesses (during cancer treatment, autoimmune diseases, HIV) or are too young (babies) to be immunized. Without herd immunity, these people are extremely exposed as well as those few percentage where the vaccines do not work. I have had the Hepatitis B vaccine three times, but I just do not develop antibodies. Because of this phenomenon, everyone needs to be vaccinated for us all to be safe!

Please give serious thought to the side effects of not vaccinating before getting upset over the side effects of a vaccine.

To me choice is clear – vaccinate!

The U.S. adult immunization schedule in 2007 (image credit: "CDC adult immunization 2007").

The U.S. adult immunization schedule in 2007: there is a reason that the schedule looks like this: it works (image credit: “CDC adult immunization 2007“).

Scientists must learn to communicate better

Scientists must also become better in public outreach communication and stop picking at each others outreach attempts. Just look at what Carl Sagan had to endure from the scientific community! Though few have done more for the public’s understanding of science than Carl Sagan.
Carl Sagan once said:

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.”

My gratefulness and my fear

Vaccines have saved so many lives, and I am so grateful that my family, friends and I have been spared these debilitating illnesses. There is no perfect solution devoid of sickness and side effects, but the benefits of vaccinations far outweigh the costs! To achieve change and increase understanding of the topics of vaccines, we scientists must acknowledge people’s concerns and meet their doubts with truthful answers. However, it remains an unfortunate truth that some people can no longer be reached.  They have entered too far into the anti-vaccination movement and behave more like religious fanatics than critically thinking concerned people.

Some are even so afraid of autism that they fail to acknowledge that vaccine-preventable illnesses might give them a brain dead or dead child (by the way, there is no link between the MMR vaccine and autism whatsoever. It is an urban legend spawned from a faulty study that was retracted [Andrew Wakefield]).

A recently published article showed that the best and most effective way to convince people to vaccinate was to show pictures of sick children. The very same tactic that has been used by the anti-vaccination movement: images of gigantic syringes (here we go…the evil syringe again!) being stabbed into the innocent flesh of crying babies. I resent this. I do not want to start this sort of exploitation, but then, not doing it might be deadly so maybe I must smash my pride and dignity to guacamole and start making memes of children crippled from polio or in a respirator due to measles? Is this my role as a scientist? Perhaps, but if not, then whose role is it?

I hope we can end this deadly trend!

Science Safely! (Thank you Garage Scientist for the edits)


Is very grateful for vaccines.

The Imaginarium’s vaccine video:

Posted in Biology, Critical Thinking, Debate, Medicine and tagged , .

Dr. Anna

Dr. Anna Zakrisson is a multifaceted biologist with degrees from world-renowned institutions such as Cambridge University, U.K. and the Max-Planck Institute in Germany. She has published a range of high-ranking scientific papers and crossed oceans on research vessels. She runs The Imaginarium science blog and YouTube channel and speaks English, German and Swedish fluently.


  1. I blindly went through the vaccination programs with all 3 of my girls. It was a ‘no brainer’ for me. I worked in hospitals & have seen the effects of measles, TB, polio & chicken pox.
    We lined up like herds of cattle in the local community centre for our baby’s shots.
    However I look back & do wish that we had more choice as to which ones we could have avoided.
    For example, my eldest girl did not get rotalix (for rota virus) as it wasn’t offered, but my younger two did.
    i feel it wasn’t totally necessary for my younger two.
    The HPV cervical cancer vaccine is another one that I won’t be getting for my girls- don’t think it’s been around long enough & I don’t want to use my girls as guinepigs. They will get PAP smears every 2 years just like I have.
    It seems like every time a pharmaceutical company derives a new vaccine it appears on the vaccination schedule for our kids.
    I wish there were more vaccines available separately instead of now as 4 in 1’s.
    Having encountered a few naturopaths & holistic health professionals I have been told there’s correlation between reduced cases of allergies etc by waiting until the baby is 6 months old before commencing the vaccines instead of starting at 2 months.
    What are you thoughts on this?

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