On the morning of April 12, 1955, newsrooms across the United States inked headlines onto newsprint: the Salk Polio vaccine was "safe, effective, and potent." This was long-awaited news. Americans had limped through decades of fear, unaware of what caused polio or how to cure it, faced with the disease's terrifying, visible power to paralyze and kill, particularly children.
The announcement of the polio vaccine was celebrated with noisy jubilation: church bells rang, factory whistles sounded, people wept in the streets. Within weeks, mass inoculation began as the nation put its faith in a vaccine that would end polio.
Today, most of us are blissfully ignorant of child polio deaths, making it easier to believe that we have not personally benefited from the development of vaccines. According to Dr. Steven Pinker, cognitive psychologist and author of the bestselling book Enlightenment Now, we've become blasé to the gifts of science. "The default expectation is not that disease is part of life and science is a godsend, but that health is the default, and any disease is some outrage," he says.
We're now in the early stages of another vaccine rollout, one we hope will end the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, the Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca vaccines are met with far greater hesitancy and skepticism than the polio vaccine was in the 50s.
In 2021, concerns over the speed and safety of vaccine development and technology plague this heroic global effort, but the roots of vaccine hesitancy run far deeper. Vaccine hesitancy has always existed in the U.S., even in the polio era, motivated in part by fears around "living virus" in a bad batch of vaccines produced by Cutter Laboratories in 1955. But in the last half century, we've witnessed seismic cultural shifts—loss of public trust, a rise in misinformation, heightened racial and socioeconomic inequality, and political polarization have all intensified vaccine-related fears and resistance. Making sense of how we got here may help us understand how to move forward.
The Rise and Fall of Public Trust
When the polio vaccine was released in 1955, "we were nearing an all-time high point in public trust," says Matt Baum, Harvard Kennedy School professor and lead author of several reports measuring public trust and vaccine confidence. Baum explains that the U.S. was experiencing a post-war boom following the Allied triumph in WWII, a popular Roosevelt presidency, and the rapid innovation that elevated the country to an international superpower.
The 1950s witnessed the emergence of nuclear technology, a space program, and unprecedented medical breakthroughs, adds Emily Brunson, Texas State University anthropologist and co-chair of the Working Group on Readying Populations for COVID-19 Vaccine. "Antibiotics were a game changer," she states. While before, people got sick with pneumonia for a month, suddenly they had access to pills that accelerated recovery.
During this period, science seemed to hold all the answers; people embraced the idea that we could "come to know the world with an absolute truth," Brunson explains. Doctors were portrayed as unquestioned gods, so Americans were primed to trust experts who told them the polio vaccine was safe.
"The emotional tone of the news has gone downward since the 1940s, and journalists consider it a professional responsibility to cover the negative."
That blind acceptance eroded in the 1960s and 70s as people came to understand that science can be inherently political. "Getting to an absolute truth works out great for white men, but these things affect people socially in radically different ways," Brunson says. As the culture began questioning the white, patriarchal biases of science, doctors lost their god-like status and experts were pushed off their pedestals. This trend continues with greater intensity today, as President Trump has led a campaign against experts and waged a war on science that began long before the pandemic.
The Shift in How We Consume Information
In the 1950s, the media created an informational consensus. The fundamental ideas the public consumed about the state of the world were unified. "People argued about the best solutions, but didn't fundamentally disagree on the factual baseline," says Baum. Indeed, the messaging around the polio vaccine was centralized and consistent, led by President Roosevelt's successful March of Dimes crusade. People of lower socioeconomic status with limited access to this information were less likely to have confidence in the vaccine, but most people consumed media that assured them of the vaccine's safety and mobilized them to receive it.
Today, the information we consume is no longer centralized—in fact, just the opposite. "When you take that away, it's hard for people to know what to trust and what not to trust," Baum explains. We've witnessed an increase in polarization and the technology that makes it easier to give people what they want to hear, reinforcing the human tendencies to vilify the other side and reinforce our preexisting ideas. When information is engineered to further an agenda, each choice and risk calculation made while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic is deeply politicized.
This polarization maps onto a rise in socioeconomic inequality and economic uncertainty. These factors, associated with a sense of lost control, prime people to embrace misinformation, explains Baum, especially when the situation is difficult to comprehend. "The beauty of conspiratorial thinking is that it provides answers to all these questions," he says. Today's insidious fragmentation of news media accelerates the circulation of mis- and disinformation, reaching more people faster, regardless of veracity or motivation. In the case of vaccines, skepticism around their origin, safety, and motivation is intensified.
Alongside the rise in polarization, Pinker says "the emotional tone of the news has gone downward since the 1940s, and journalists consider it a professional responsibility to cover the negative." Relentless focus on everything that goes wrong further erodes public trust and paints a picture of the world getting worse. "Life saved is not a news story," says Pinker, but perhaps it should be, he continues. "If people were more aware of how much better life was generally, they might be more receptive to improvements that will continue to make life better. These improvements don't happen by themselves."
The Future Depends on Vaccine Confidence
So far, the U.S. has been unable to mitigate the catastrophic effects of the pandemic through social distancing, testing, and contact tracing. President Trump has downplayed the effects and threat of the virus, censored experts and scientists, given up on containing the spread, and mobilized his base to protest masks. The Trump Administration failed to devise a national plan, so our national plan has defaulted to hoping for the "miracle" of a vaccine. And they are "something of a miracle," Pinker says, describing vaccines as "the most benevolent invention in the history of our species." In record-breaking time, three vaccines have arrived. But their impact will be weakened unless we achieve mass vaccination. As Brunson notes, "The technology isn't the fix; it's people taking the technology."
Significant challenges remain, including facilitating widespread access and supporting on-the-ground efforts to allay concerns and build trust with specific populations with historic reasons for distrust, says Brunson. Baum predicts continuing delays as well as deaths from other causes that will be linked to the vaccine.
Still, there's every reason for hope. The new administration "has its eyes wide open to these challenges. These are the kind of problems that are amenable to policy solutions if we have the will," Baum says. He forecasts widespread vaccination by late summer and a bounce back from the economic damage, a "Good News Story" that will bolster vaccine acceptance in the future. And Pinker reminds us that science, medicine, and public health have greatly extended our lives in the last few decades, a trend that can only continue if we're willing to roll up our sleeves.