Declining confidence in government institutions is feeding a growing mistrust of vaccination around the world, according to a report out today based on the largest global survey of attitudes in science and health.
The Wellcome Trust report, which relies on 2018 interviews with at least 1,000 people in each of 142 countries, shows that income inequality, lower education levels and lack of confidence in government contribute to mistrust of science. At the same time, high percentages of people in almost every country trust doctors and nurses.
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Most people in poor countries, where vaccine-preventable diseases are common and deadly or crippling, are highly confident of the safety and value of vaccines. But vaccine-preventable measles outbreaks have occurred in various countries over the past year, and the World Health Organization listed vaccine hesitancy as one of 10 global health threats.
The survey found that 11 percent of Americans do not agree with the statement that vaccines are safe. Across Europe, the percentage of those disputing the statement is roughly 20 percent.
In most of the world, better educated people are more confident of vaccines. But in Europe, Canada and the United States, the better-educated are more likely to be skeptical of their value and safety.
“There’s no silver bullet to increase trust in health or in vaccines,” said Imran Khan, a senior Wellcome Trust official, in an interview. “The survey reveals that attitudes toward health systems and vaccines are wrapped in context. If scientists don’t understand the context they aren’t likely to be able to bridge the gap.”
While scientists have traditionally viewed science education as key, the inverse is also true, said Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar. “Understanding people and society is at least as important as understanding viruses and immunology,” he said in a news release.
The lowest levels of vaccine acceptance, according to the survey, are in France, the home of Louis Pasteur, whose rabies and anthrax vaccines began the modern vaccine era.
Fully a third of the French dispute the statement that vaccines are safe, and 19 percent of those surveyed felt vaccines were not necessarily effective. The study does not theorize why this might be. France in recent years imposed new vaccine mandates following a series of measles and meningitis outbreaks.
The French are also the nationality most likely to see science and technology as a threat to local employment prospects, according to the survey. Europeans as a group are the most pessimistic about the impact of science and technology on jobs in their countries.
The study found that in every area of the world, men claimed to be more knowledgeable about science than did women, even if their education levels were the same.
The study also found that 19 percent of the world’s population believes that science does not benefit them or people in their country. “At a time of growing mistrust, we have to think about whether people think science has their interest at heart,” Khan said.