In the 1960s, academics studying rumours drew inspiration from epidemiology. They noted how such stories spread through communities, “infecting” some individuals while others seemed immune, and how more resistant populations could stop their spread.
Their insights have in turn been taken up by health professionals. Hearsay can be useful, helping to catch disease outbreaks. It can also be deadly. Though vaccine hesitancy is as old as vaccines themselves, it has risen sharply in many countries in recent years. Unfounded scare stories about the safety of immunisation programmes have contributed to growing scepticism and outright refusal, with fatal consequences. In her new book Stuck: How Vaccine Rumours Start – and Why They Don’t Go Away, Prof Heidi Larson notes the paradox: we have better vaccine science, more safety regulations and processes than ever before, yet a doubting public.
For the foreseeable future, demand for Covid-19 vaccines is likely to far outstrip supply. The US biotech firm Moderna has now joined Pfizer/BioNTech in announcing a vaccine with more than 90% efficacy in protecting people from Covid-19, but it will not be available outside the US until next year. The Oxford University/AstraZeneca candidate is some way further off in its work.
But while many are thrilled by the prospect of immunisation – three in four adults globally have said they would take it up if it were available – the unusual speed with which these products have been developed and tested has prompted anxiety among others, including those normally sanguine about vaccines.…