Dominic Lawson: To win the Covid-19 war we confront anti-vaxxers

DOMINIC LAWSON: To win the war on Covid-19 we must inoculate Britain against the crazy anti-vaxxers

There is only one sure way to deal with the coronavirus which has plunged the world’s economy into recession and killed (so far) more than half a million people. A vaccine.

The global race to develop one has been extraordinary in its scale and speed. As a result, it is thought possible that a vaccine might be approved as safe for general use as early as this winter.

That would be wonderful. But there is a hitch, relating to the perversity of human psychology rather than any failings in the medical or regulatory process.

For a vaccine to create the ‘herd immunity’ required, it is necessary for between 70 and 90 per cent of us to receive such an inoculation. And the hitch is that more people than ever before have joined the ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement.

There is only one sure way to deal with the coronavirus – a vaccine, though more people than ever before have joined the ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement, with sundry so-called ‘celebrities’ Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy (both pictured) promoting it in America

It is especially strong in the United States, promoted by sundry so-called ‘celebrities’ (such as Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy). Indeed, Donald Trump, before he became President, had repeatedly claimed that autism was caused by childhood vaccines.


But in the UK, too, it has become an increasingly popular form of conspiracy theory. In this country, it often seems linked to support for homeopathy.

Yesterday, it was revealed that the ‘head of standards’ for the Society of Homeopaths, Sue Pilkington, had on her social media account repeatedly reposted tirades by ‘anti-vaxxers’, including one which describes vaccines as ‘poison’.

On her own business website, she claimed that homeopathy has ‘a great track record of success in epidemics’, citing the Spanish influenza and bird flu epidemics as (non-existent) evidence.

Sue Pilkington (pictured), head of standards for the Society of Homeopaths, reposted several tirades by ‘anti-vaxxers’, including one which describes vaccines as ‘poison’

When in the 18th century Samuel Hahnemann developed the principles of homeopathy — that most illnesses were the manifestations of a suppressed ‘itch’ (a kind of miasma or evil spirit) which could be cured by finding what allegedly caused the ‘itch’ and then consuming it, diluted to infinitesimal levels in water — it had one outstanding merit.

At a time when doctors prescribed mercury as a cure-all, in the days before penicillin and streptomycin, a ‘nothing’ treatment would often have been much more beneficial than the alternatives.

But we are no longer in the 18th century. Although the Prince of Wales still is: he gives one of his Royal Warrants to Ainsworths, which, until it was caught out by a BBC investigation, was regularly advertising ‘homeopathic vaccines’ (that is, not vaccines) for meningitis, measles and rubella.

More recently, the company has been selling ground-down bricks from the Berlin Wall — diluted of course — as a cure for depression.

It is the British (ex) doctor Andrew Wakefield, whose fraudulent 1998 study for the medical magazine The Lancet, claiming that autism in children was caused by the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, who remains a hero for the anti-vaxxer movement.

Former British doctor Andrew Wakefield (pictured above) fraudulently claimed that autism in children was caused by the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and has remained a hero in the ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement

Despite being struck off by the British General Medical Council — which, among other things, established that he had ‘deliberately falsified’ data — he is now thriving in the U.S.

It wasn’t until 2010 that the GMC finally gave official confirmation that Wakefield was a scoundrel, and the long delay between the first journalistic exposure of his unscrupulous conduct and his being struck off can only have helped diminish public confidence in the MMR vaccine — and a consequent loss of ‘herd immunity’ amid falling take-up rates.

In 2018, the UK lost its ‘measles elimination’ status, bracketing us with Albania (Europe’s poorest country).

It makes me wonder what Roald Dahl, England’s best-loved children’s author until the emergence of JK Rowling, would have thought. He had become an ardent vaccination advocate, following the death from measles of his daughter Olivia at the age of seven in 1962, before a vaccine had been developed.

In 1988, in a pamphlet for his local health authority’s vaccination promotion, Dahl described in heart-breaking detail Olivia’s rapid descent from apparent recovery, to ‘drowsiness’, unconsciousness and death. He wrote that it was ‘almost a crime’ for parents not to have their children vaccinated. But should it be treated as one?


At last year’s Conservative party conference, before the coronavirus emerged from China to haunt the world, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, floated the idea: ‘I think there’s a very strong argument for having compulsory vaccination for children when they go to school, because otherwise they’re putting other children at risk.’

Now, fatalities from Covid-19 are extraordinarily rare among children: one of the features of the disease is that its risk is overwhelmingly greater for people of advanced years, or with pre-existing medical conditions, such as diabetes.

At last year’s Conservative Party conference, Matt Hancock (pictured) floated the idea of children undertaking compulsory vaccinations when they go to school

The necessity of a mass vaccine take-up is not to safeguard the lives of children but for the general good of us all, economically as much as medically.

It is only when the public believe that the virus is tamed that full confidence will return to our interactions with our fellow citizens: then ‘social distancing’, perhaps even face masks, can be cast aside, and the blight of mass unemployment in ‘consumer-facing’ industries can be ended.

Yet, according to a poll this month by YouGov, nearly one in five British adults say they would either probably or definitely turn down a coronavirus vaccine.

The poll also found that those who get their ‘information’ from social media rather than more traditional channels are more likely to be hostile to the idea of a vaccine. 

It is much easier for well-financed ‘anti-vaxxers’ such as Robert F. Kennedy Jnr, the nephew of President John F. Kennedy and the executive producer of Vaxed 11: The People’s Truth, to advertise via Facebook and other online sites.

Robert F. Kennedy Jnr, the nephew of President John F. Kennedy, is a well-known member of the ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement, having acted as the executive producer of ‘Vaxed 11: The People’s Truth’

This has greatly angered a retired distinguished doctor friend, who has advised governments in the past.

I had always thought of him as anti-authoritarian in his instincts, but he told me that if a coronavirus vaccine became available, he would argue that there should be a certificate given for all who had it — and those who refused and couldn’t produce a certificate ‘should be banned from restaurants, theatres, supermarkets and public buildings’.


That idea makes me uneasy. I would prefer instead that the Government turns the ‘celebrity’ endorsement factor against the anti-vaccination lobby. 

So in the field of sport, it should hire, say, Andy Murray, to promote a campaign (a suitable antidote to ‘anti-vaxxer’ Novak Djokovic).

Current tennis world number one Novak Djokovic (pictured), from Serbia, is another celebrity member of the ‘anti-vaxxer’ movement 

And I’m sure there are popular figures from the world of showbiz who could easily outgun Jenny McCarthy, the actress and one-time nude model for Playboy magazine, who has become a figurehead for the anti-vaccine movement.

Figures from stand-up comedy would also be useful, as humour is often the best way to win people’s hearts (especially in the UK). For example, there is the comedian Hannah Gadsby, who is on the autistic spectrum. She has already challenged the anti-vaxxers on MMR.

Her core audience tends to be well-off women, a group especially prone to paranoia about vaccines — and she takes them on directly. 

So, in one skit, after discussing her autism, she tells them: ‘Do you know what causes autism? No, you f***ing don’t. If you honestly think you do, your confidence is making you stupid.’

Comedian Hannah Gadsby, who is on the autistic spectrum, challenged ‘anti-vaxxers’ on MMR during one of her skits, with her core audience being well-off women – who are especially prone to paranoia about vaccines

Another of her lines, relating to the polio vaccine is: ‘As difficult as this life is, it’s nice to have a life. And it’s particularly nice to have this life without polio. Polio is bad, and that is a fact, not a feeling.’

This hits the anti-vax nail on the head. Its campaigning is all about the way people say they ‘feel’, far removed from the complex and even intimidating world of scientific and medical research.

Furthermore, the advance of genuine medical knowledge is a painstaking process, involving exhaustive ‘double-blind’ clinical trials (designed to establish that a new drug is more effective than a placebo — and a placebo is all homeopathy amounts to).

It can be hard, in the instant, low-concentration-span internet Tower of Babel that is social media, for such conscientious empiricism to win out over raw emotional certainty masquerading as knowledge.

So it may well be necessary, when the coronavirus vaccine becomes available, for the state to ask the most popular, rather than the most qualified — how about Prince William? — to inoculate the public against the anti-vaxxers.

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