When the World Health Organisation set out its top 10 dangers to global health in 2019 and included vaccine hesitancy, few people noticed. Current vaccine programmes are estimated to save around three to four million lives a year and this could be extended by around 1.5 million if programmes were fully utilised. Yet there has been a trend in recent times that has seen a reluctance or refusal to access vaccines even when supplies are plentiful. The results have been predictable with measles, for example, rising by over 30 per cent globally, with some countries witnessing a resurgence.
The causes of vaccine hesitancy range from mistrust of the vaccines or health providers to complacency about the dangers of infectious diseases. More worrying is the recent rise in the numbers who succumb to conspiracy theories about plots by the state against the citizen, misplaced arguments about civil liberties or fears about safety, which are often driven by misinformation through social media.
It is perhaps understandable, with reduced prevalence, that infectious diseases do not generate the fear that they might have done in previous generations, but we need the public to understand the importance of good population immunity if we are to prevent these horrors from recurring.
Last month, Oxford University published a piece showing that, according to a study, 16 per cent of the population are very unsure about receiving a Covid-19 vaccine, and another 12 per cent are likely to delay or avoid having it. Perhaps even more worryingly, one in five people thought Covid-19 vaccine data was fabricated and another one in four were unsure whether fraud was being perpetrated.
Recent studies have shown a marked susceptibility to misinformation disseminated by social media. Over 42,000 people follow Piers Corbyn, brother of the former Labour leader, on social media. He has claimed the Covid-19 vaccine is experimental and vaccine producers have no liability for sickness or death. His crazed narrative suggests that it is all part of the agenda of "the new world order".
This is a reference, popular among conspiracy theorists, to a secret plan to create a capitalist totalitarian global government. While these ravings may be laughable to sensible opinion, they are no laughing matter.
It is part of what we might describe as an anti-Enlightenment tendency which threatens to push our society away from technological advancement towards a situation where opinions are regarded as being as important as facts.
The way to deal with it is not to restrict what people are allowed to say, however irritating that may be, but to redouble our efforts to provide reasoned explanations backed by objective data, expressed in language that is accessible to the wider public.
Perhaps one of the few consolations of the pandemic is our ability to use the attention of the public for positive messages about public health and our responsibility to our fellow citizens. We must heed the warnings from the WHO and act now.