Populist politics and vaccine hesitancy in Western Europe: an analysis of national-level data

Eur J Public Health. 2019 Jun 1;29(3):512-516. doi: 10.1093/eurpub/ckz004.

Abstract

Background: Parents' reluctance to vaccinate their children undermines the effectiveness of vaccination programmes in Western Europe. There is anecdotal evidence suggesting a connection between the rise of political populism and vaccine hesitancy.

Methods: This paper analyses national-level data to examine the link between political populism and vaccine hesitancy in Western Europe. Political populism is operationalised as the percentage of people in a country who voted for populist parties in the 2014 European Parliament elections. Vaccine hesitancy is operationalised as the percentage of people in a country who believe that vaccines are not important, safe and effective according to data from the Vaccine Confidence Project (2015).

Results: There is a highly significant positive association between the percentage of people in a country who voted for populist parties and who believe that vaccines are not important (R = 0.7923, P = 0.007) and effective (R = 0.7222, P = 0.0035). The percentage of people who think vaccines are unsafe just misses being significant at the 5% level (R = 0.5027, P = 0.0669).

Conclusions: Vaccine hesitancy and political populism are driven by similar dynamics: a profound distrust in elites and experts. It is necessary for public health scholars and actors to work to build trust with parents that are reluctant to vaccinate their children, but there are limits to this strategy. 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.

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Europe
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Parents / psychology*
  • Patient Acceptance of Health Care*
  • Politics*
  • Vaccination / statistics & numerical data*