Vaccination and celebrity – The meningitis B vaccine debate in context

We’ve seen a number of stories of late about how certain parents are eschewing vaccination for their children. At the School, Heidi Larson’s team is doing important work on the spread of ‘vaccine hesitancy’ and the extent of ‘vaccine confidence’. And it’s not that long ago that we were warned that the MMR crisis was at fault for epidemics of measles.

We have to square this apparent lack of faith in vaccination with recent events over the death of Matt Dawson’s daughter from meningitis B.

A petition was launched on Parliament’s website to give a new meningitis B vaccine to all children – not just to babies born after 2015. It quickly crashed the website. To date, it has had well over 800,000 signatures and is – at the time of writing – the most popular petition since the system was set up.

It seems relatively clear, then, that the British public broadly believes that vaccines prevent diseases. Just like washing one’s hands before eating, brushing one’s teeth, or using antibiotics. What is also evident, is that often this belief only surfaces when stimulated by extraordinary events. Moreover, while the British might believe in vaccination as a general concept, they can at various times have doubts over whether an individual vaccine is in their children’s best interests.

An entire thesis could be written on this subject – in fact, this is precisely the project I’m researching for Placing the Public In Public Health. But there is one talking point from the recent discussion that is worth considering. What role do “celebrities” have in affecting public attitudes towards vaccination?

The anti-poliomyelitis programme of the 1950s offers us some insights.

When Birmingham City full back Jeff Hall died from polio in 1959, it saw a surge of young people taking up the Salk polio vaccine. Such was the demand that the government ran out of vaccine.

Up to that point, registration rates had been pretty low. Some of this had been down to the Cutter Incident in which a number of children had died as a result of a contaminated batch of vaccine. There had also been chronic supply issues, meaning that many children who had signed up in previous years had been forced to wait for the “safer” and “more effective” British version of the immunisation.

(Well: safer and more effective according to the Ministry of Health.)

Hall’s death, however, showed the public that even fit and healthy young adults could be struck down by the disease. Demand sky-rocketed, and the government was unprepared. With no stockpiles, and unable to distribute limited supplies fast enough, many local authorities ran out of the vaccine. The Health Minister did the honourable thing – and blamed public naivety.

There has been no maldistribution on the part of my Department at all. I have already pointed out that both the original requests and the supplementary requests [from local authorities for the vaccine] have been met. As for any delays in delivering vaccine, these have been very slight. And those who have had to wait at all for vaccine could have been vaccinated months ago if they had registered when I asked them.

Derek Walker-Smith, 27 April 1959

Elvis Presley, 1956

In the States, many commentators pointed to Elvis Presley as the catalyst for improved vaccination rates. Cutter had, no doubt, caused serious doubts amongst the American public. But it was quickly shown that the incident was as a result of a laboratory error – the vaccine itself (when properly prepared) was safe and effective.

If the polio jab was good enough for the most famous man in the world, then surely it was good enough for the general population?

There are plenty of recent examples of the effects that celebrities have on what might broadly be called “health awareness”. Kylie Minogue’s breast cancer diagnosis, for example. Or the family history and subsequent double mastectomy of Angelia Jolie-Pitt. Similarly, Freddie Mercury, Magic Johnson and Rock Hudson all had impacts on HIV/AIDS awareness. The most striking case may well be Jade Goodie, a reality TV star in Britain who contracted terminal cervical cancer.

Indeed, we could go back further – President Roosevelt’s poliomyelitis and involvement in fund raising to find cures and immunisations against the disease; or Lady Mary Montagu’s smallpox and importation of the idea of inoculation to the British nobility from the Ottoman Empire.

The use of Matt Dawson’s family experience, then, is not new. Public health has – consciously or not – often had its educational efforts enhanced by high-profile cases. Such cases offer a window into the unsaid attitudes of the public towards public health. In this particular instance, it seems, we see that the British do have a deep-seated belief in vaccination – even if they don’t always articulate it.

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