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Understanding Covid-19 anti-vaxxers: scepticism about jabs is nothing new

Vaccine phobia has always been an adjunct to modern science and medicine, writes Paula Andropoulos

30 May 2021 - 00:02 By Paula Andropoulos
Anti-vaxxers take to the streets in Sydney, Australia, in February.
Anti-vaxxers take to the streets in Sydney, Australia, in February.
Image: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images

While we tend to think of the anti-vaxxer movement as a contemporary phenomenon, a culture of paranoia and misinformation has surrounded vaccination since its inception.

I'm sure you're familiar with the story of Edward Jenner, who developed the smallpox vaccine in the 18th century. Jenner noticed that milkmaids seemed to be immune to the ravages of the deadly smallpox virus, and concluded that their exposure to cowpox was likely connected.

In an — admittedly ethically unscrupulous — manoeuvre, he administered a dose of cowpox to a young child. Once the child had recovered, Jenner repeated the experiment with smallpox and, in keeping with his initial hypothesis, the boy did not contract the (much deadlier) variant of the disease.

Vaccine inventor Edward Jenner vaccinates his son against smallpox. Some believed the vaccine could engender bovine characteristics in humans.
Vaccine inventor Edward Jenner vaccinates his son against smallpox. Some believed the vaccine could engender bovine characteristics in humans.
Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Given just how deadly — and how painful — smallpox had been up until that point, it seems logical to assume Jenner would have been celebrated as a maverick genius, and that the man on the street would have been desperate for inoculation. But, myths and mocking around vaccination — then called variolation — abounded from the get-go: not only did naysayers insist that Jenner's methodology was ungodly, but there were also whispers that exposure to the vaccine could engender bovine characteristics and other strange side-effects.


The same is true of the poliomyelitis vaccine, which was developed by Jonas Salk and introduced to the American public in 1955.

If you don't know much about the polio epidemics that perennially debilitated and killed off scores of children every summer, I would advise you to read Philip Roth's novel Nemesis — it is utterly harrowing. Children under five were most at risk, and survivors often remained paralysed or unable to breathe outside of an iron lung.

Salk refused to patent the vaccine, and people around the world rejoiced at the defeat of polio. But in spite of the fact that, in 1952, polio had killed more than 3,000 Americans, some people remained terrified of the vaccine, and worried that it would infect their children with the active virus itself.

Vaccine phobia has always been an adjunct to modern science and medicine.

In 1998, the (now discredited) Dr Andrew Wakefield published an article in The Lancet that purported that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine that is administered to children in their infancy could be linked to autism.

In spite of the fact that this correlation has been thoroughly debunked by a multitude of scientific and medical personnel over the past 20 years — The Lancet apologised, Wakefield was disgraced and stripped of his medical licence — the damage wrought by this myth has endured, with sporadic measles outbreaks beginning to recur as a consequence of nervous parents' reticence to vaccinate their children.

Evidence of the conspiracy theory-fuelled anti-vaxxer community is everywhere on social media. Groups with names like “Mommies Against Vaccination” litter Facebook and Instagram, with administrators and participants imploring people not to vaccinate their children.


Some vaccine-phobes cite their aversion to government control (the implication being that we're getting implanted with tracking devices every time we go for a flu shot).

Others believe the ingredients in vaccines are inherently foreign and toxic to our bodies, and that human beings should trust in their immune systems to build up antibodies and ward off disease, the old-fashioned way (or ... die?).

It seems that, as human beings, we have very short attention spans where mass suffering and fatalities are concerned, and this extends to our relationship to illness and modern medicine. In spurning vaccinations, we take our healthfulness for granted, and our historical knowledge of plague and pandemic is somehow magically wiped from our collective memory bank. It is its own genre of cognitive dissonance, and it is very troubling.

The (very vocal) online anti-vaxxer community was a burgeoning issue before Covid-19, with worrying implications for hard-won herd immunity and school safety. In year two of the pandemic, however, the stakes are higher than ever, with vaccine rollouts beginning in bursts and starts all over the world.

According to an article in The Atlantic, one in four Americans have expressed their intention not to be vaccinated, and it's no secret that many South Africans are equally concerned about the potential side-effects of these new vaccines, be they J&J, Moderna or Pfizer.


Not everybody who is chary of the Covid vaccines is necessarily anti-vaccination in general, and it's only fair to make this distinction. The fact is, these vaccines are new technology and we cannot claim to be able to predict what kinds of potential side-effects might arise in the long run. That said, we also don't yet know what the long-term ramifications of contracting the coronavirus are going to be, either, and it's safe to assume that they're not likely to be physically beneficial.

Some people who have already contracted the virus would rather rely on their extant antibodies, although it's not certain how long this brand of immunity lasts. Additionally, we know that having contracted one strain of the virus doesn't automatically protect you from falling prey to a different strain.

Some young, “healthy” people — in other words, people without comorbidities — would rather take their chances, given that on paper the disease is not likely to kill them. But I know some young, healthy people who have died from Covid, youth and health notwithstanding. Right now, the coronavirus is unpredictable.

Misinformation about vaccines is rife. I've heard murmurings that the vaccines in circulation might impair fertility, but on investigation there's no scientific evidence to bolster this conclusion.

I've heard rumours the vaccines are ineffectual, in spite of all the trials and scientifically accredited reports that preceded their public release.

And I've heard some of the nuttier theories — that Microsoft founder Bill Gates is implanting microchips into the vaccine serums; that Covid itself is mythological and/or that the medico-scientific industry manufactured it to profit off mandatory vaccination schemes; that we're all pawns in a chess game of moves and countermoves, the casualties of an international flurry of biological warfare.


It's natural and, frankly, sane to be afraid of the unknown, and it's difficult to condemn people for being scared of the Covid vaccines when they're still so new. But I personally believe that it's reasonable and responsible to assume reputable medical and scientific institutions are acting in our best interests in promoting vaccination.

Mass vaccination is ultimately essential to our chances of building up herd immunity and protecting one another. When it comes to Covid, there is no “us” and “them”, there's only us, up against it — “it” being a horrific virus that's killed more than 3-million people in the space of a year and some months.

When your time comes — that is, when you're eligible for vaccination — if you still don't want to avail yourself of the opportunity, then that is your choice. But I would urge you to consider the ethical and social consequences of such a choice at length, and to conduct yourself accordingly. Vaccinated or not, until we achieve herd immunity, we need to keep wearing our masks, and staying far away from the elderly and the immunologically vulnerable.

Do some research on smallpox; Google what it looked like and how it felt before it killed you. Consider the fact that we only managed to eradicate it through widespread vaccination. When it comes down to it, vaccination is a privilege, not a punishment — and a relatively new privilege at that.