It would be fair to say that I’ve been unimpressed with almost everything Boris Johnson has done since he got the keys to 10 Downing Street. From the Brexit bluster to his apparent discovery of a magic money tree, I’ve seen little that is grounded in reality. The idea that a complicated political and diplomatic situation like Brexit can be solved by having a positive mental attitude is nonsense, and the apparent desire to leave the EU without a deal leaves the country teetering on the brink of disaster.
So when he took to Twitter yesterday to urge people to get their children vaccinated, it took me by surprise. Using his position to promote vaccines is a sensible move, and the policy changes he’s ordered – calling on GPs to promote catch-up vaccinations for those who may have missed the crucial second MMR jab, for instance – are important, and evidence based.
At one point in the video, Johnson referred to anti-vaxx content as ‘media mumbo jumbo’. I think that’s a bit misrepresentative of the situation now, it’s fair to point out that media reporting on vaccinations has all-too-often been part of the problem in the past. In July 1997 the South Wales Evening Post began a campaign that raised concerns about the MMR vaccination. Sixteen years later, in November, immunity levels had dropped significantly in areas that received the paper. There was a measles outbreak in Swansea, and one man died. Indeed, the level of coverage Andrew Wakefield, who wrongly originally raised concerns about MMR, received is generally best confined to the dustbin of history.
The crucial battleground over the truth about vaccines is now, of course, social media. Anti-vaxx content online is rife, easy to find and hugely popular. People make a fortune out of spreading and building lifestyle brands that have an anti-vaxx message at their core. I spent a lot of time looking into it for my recent book on fake news and found a terrifying alternative reality.
It is a reality in which vaccines are the problem, not the cure. A reality where the vulnerable are exploited and put at risk. Not vaccinating a child not only makes that child at risk of a very nasty illness, but also damages herd immunity. It means that those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons are needlessly put at greater risk. Johnson put pressure on social media companies to stop the spread of such misleading content. Downing Street will host a summit with social media firms in a bid to find ways to better promote accurate vaccination information.
It is right that the Prime Minister has intervened, because this is not just a technological issue, it is a profoundly political one. As a paper published in the European Journal of Public Health in February 2019 concluded: “Vaccine hesitancy and political populism are driven by similar dynamics: a profound distrust in elites and experts.” The paper added: “The more general popular distrust of elites and experts which informs vaccine hesitancy will be difficult to resolve unless its underlying causes—the political disenfranchisement and economic marginalisation of large parts of the Western European population—are also addressed.”
It is not some far flung hypothetical issue either, but a reality that actually affects people. When I was at university, over a decade ago, there was an issue with measles on campus. My cohort of students was at exactly the age to be vaccinated when fears about MMR were at its highest – lots of us, for various reasons, did not receive the crucial second inoculation. My flatmate got measles and I found that I had not had that jab. After a rather worrying few days all was fine, but it could have been avoided. There were 231 cases of measles in the UK in the first quarter of 2019. That is an outrageously high figure in a developed country in which the illness had largely been eradicated.
So, criticise the Prime Minister for lots of what he does. I certainly will. But in his attempts to stop the spread of anti-vaxx nonsense, he is absolutely right.