Falling for populist lies is associated with falling for antivaxxer lies — who would have thought?

Tracing back to discredited research, vaccine skepticism is associated with populist researchers. Image credits: Kennedy (2019).

In recent years, the world has witnessed a string of populist politicians rising to power. Archpopulist Donald Trump served as a lightning rod for most of the discussions but elsewhere in the world, other politicians have used similar approaches to climb into power. Jay Bolsonaro in Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines are two striking examples, but Europe has had its fair share of populists in recent times.

Perhaps uncoincidentally, Europe is also experiencing its biggest measles outbreaks in over a decade, largely fueled by vaccine reluctance. Researchers suspected a correlation between the two. Populism relies on fueling hate towards experts and the perceived elite, and antivaxxing relies on a similar approach. Lead author Dr. Jonathan Kennedy from Queen Mary University of London, study author, explained:

“It seems likely that scientific populism is driven by similar feelings to political populism, for example, a profound distrust of elites and experts by disenfranchised and marginalised parts of the population.”

“Even where programmes objectively improve the health of targeted populations, they can be viewed with suspicion by communities that do not trust elites and experts. In the case of vaccine hesitancy, distrust is focused on public health experts and pharmaceutical companies that advocate vaccines.”

So along with colleagues, Kennedy analyzed national-level data from 14 European countries, looking at the percentage of people who voted for populist leaders and comparing it to the percentage of people who think vaccines are not important and/or effective.

They found a strong correlation between the two: wherever people would support populists, they would also start to question the effectiveness of vaccines. In this sense, vaccination can serve as a “canary in the coal mine” for future populism. When elected, populist leaders also always tend to push an anti-vaccine agenda. In Italy, the newly elected Five Star Movement (5SM) repeatedly spoke against vaccines — with important results. The Italian Parliament recently passed a law to repeal legislation that makes vaccines compulsory for children enrolling in state schools. Meanwhile, in Italy, MMR vaccination coverage fell from 90% in 2013 to 85% in 2016, a seemingly harmless drop, which resulted in an increase in measles cases from 840 in 2016 to 5000 in 2017.

It seems that the more extreme a party is, the more likely they are to support antivaxxing — regardless of whether they are left or right wing. In Greece, the left-wing SYRIZA government proposed that parents should be able to opt out of vaccinating their children. However, their efforts haven’t been particularly fruitful, as Greek confidence in vaccines has recently been increasing. In France, where several childhood vaccinations have been made mandatory by law, the right-wing Front National have also raised concerns about vaccine safety.

Researchers also note just how much damage a single, blatantly flawed paper can cause. Much of the distrust in vaccinations comes from a paper published by Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield reported that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine can cause autism. This has not only been repeatedly disproved, but it has since been shown that Wakefield knowingly tampered with the data and subjected children to inhumane treatment — and yet, his echo still lives on.

In the US, Donald Trump has also spoken against vaccines. Although his own experts have disproved his claims, a recent survey has found that 1 in 3 Trump supporters believe vaccines and autism are related. Meanwhile, on the plus side, countries like Portugal, Finland, and Belgium seem to have no affinity towards either populist leaders or antivaxxing.

At the end of the day, parents want what’s best for their children — and lack of vaccinations can and has killed children. Science-based policy strongly recommends vaccination as a way to make children safer and healthier, whereas populism and fear-mongering attempt to scare parents away from vaccination. Hopefully, fear will not be the victor here.

The study ‘Populist politics and vaccine hesitancy in Western Europe: an analysis of national-level data’ by Jonathan Kennedy has been published in the European Journal of Public Health. DOI: 10.1093/eurpub/ckz004