Vaccine Politics: Understanding Polarization and Public Health

Photo via UChicago Medicine

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Since the invention of the first vaccine in 1796, countless lives have been saved from diseases such as smallpox, polio, and meningitis. Before 2008, the attitude of Americans toward vaccines had mainly been apolitical. After this, Republicans became more skeptical about them, while Democrats grew more supportive. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, division on whether to get vaccinated reached an all-time high, with 83% of Democrats willing to take the new vaccine and just 46% of Republicans. The pandemic exacerbated negative attitudes toward all vaccinations, specifically in the Republican Party, because of a lack of trust in the news and the spread of misinformation online. In 2019, the World Health Organization said that vaccine hesitancy was one of the top ten leading threats to global health; one can only image it is much higher now. 

Before the pandemic, the anti-vaccination movement in the United States became increasingly aligned with conservative values on health and medical freedom. When the pandemic hit, the anti-vaccination groups were able to capitalize on the fact that citizens were unhappy with social distancing, mask mandates, and vaccine mandates. The media has always influenced the public’s perception of vaccinations and, for the most part, has been viewed by Americans as a reliable source of information. However, Americans’ trust in the media recently hit an all-time low, leading to perceptions of the media being markedly politicized. There is a large gap between Democrats and Republicans, with 14% of Republicans and 70% of Democrats saying they have confidence in mainstream news.

A pronounced lack of trust in mainstream media correlates greatly with the decision not to follow the CDC’s advice on vaccinating against COVID-19. In September 2021, 90% of Democrats and 58% of Republicans were immunized against the virus. Because people don’t trust mainstream media, they get information from alternative sources such as social media and other websites that are not regulated. From 2019 to 2020, anti-vaccination social media pages increased their follower counts by over 7 million. Social media had a negative impact on opinions of not only the COVID-19 vaccine, but other vaccines in general. 

One of the main reasons that COVID-19 made vaccinations a more polarizing issue was that Republicans and Democrats were getting their information from different sources. Depending on where a person was getting their news, their views on the vaccine and whether it was effective shifted. 56% of those who got their news from Fox, a conservative-leaning outlet, believed the media had greatly exaggerated the risks of COVID-19, while only 25% of those who watched CNN, a more left-wing company, did. This divergence highlights how the news increases polarization around vaccinations. 

Attitudes towards vaccines were also heavily influenced by former President Donald Trump, as he was the first-ever U.S. president to have a negative attitude toward vaccines. He has tweeted in the past that vaccinations against measles, mumps, and rubella cause autism, a conspiracy that has been debunked. Because of the influence he has over his supporters, however, comments like these feed into anti-vaccination movement agendas. In a recent campaign, he said, “I will not give one penny to any school with a vaccine mandate.” According to his campaign, he only refers to COVID-19 vaccine mandates; however, he did not explicitly state that in the speech. Every state requires that children get vaccinated against measles, mumps, polio, tetanus, whooping cough, and chickenpox. A plan to withhold federal funding would have a detrimental effect. 

Vaccines are a significant advancement in public health that has saved many people since the time they were created. In recent years, there has been a troubling shift in the attitude surrounding vaccines, often aligned with political affiliations. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the division was further advanced by a lack of trust in mainstream media, misinformation, and contradicting sources of information. The polarization of vaccine attitudes is a dangerous public health concern and can be combatted through politicians and influential figures who communicate accurate information to advocate for vaccinations. To undo the damage that has been done, it is essential to prioritize accurate details, address the trust that has been damaged in the media, and promote vaccinations to keep people safe from diseases. It is imperative that we look at history to see the perils of a world without vaccines. Combatting vaccine hesitancy is essential to safeguard public health and prevent the resurgence of diseases. 

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This article was edited by Blakely Kehl.