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Why are vaccines so controversial?

Riots. Smoke. Burning of laws. Protests, screaming, families torn apart.This, albeit extreme, is the heartbreaking reality of what discussions about  vaccines have come to. What are we doing? How does this happen?How did what is supposed to be public HEALTH…..harm so many people?

How did this happen? It’s a simple question, with a complex answer. Nobody becomes extremist overnight. It’s a summation of many different experiences that causes this. Maybe over a few years, maybe even over a lifetime. It’s a slow, graded process. However, no matter how slow, eventually, the result will come out. 

Don’t take my word for it. I’ve never been opposed to vaccines. I can’t speak for others. However, take it from someone who can. Criag Idlebrook is a former anti-vaxxer who now encourages people to take vaccines. He wrote about his experience in a 2021 blog post, “I didn’t wake up one day and suddenly distrust childhood immunisations. It happened over time, step by step down a path paved with good intentions until I got to a point where I was so sure that immunisations were dangerous that I was willing to lie to school officials and say I had a religious objection to them”.

Those steps look different for different people. Maybe they had one or two snarky comments from healthcare providers who were having a bad day. Maybe they were struggling with loneliness and found a sense of community in natural living communities. Or maybe they were always part of such a community. Grew up with them. Married someone from them. Perhaps they even raised their children with certain values. Pretty difficult to turn back once you’ve established yourself that much within a community. 

Here’s the bottom line. You don’t know which of these happened. You don’t know what combination of experiences that causes this kind of extremism will vary among people. You can’t know what they are. So it’s almost impossible to predict how any one given person will react to vaccines, mandates, or any other kind of medical intervention. There are just too many variables between people to know that. 

So what do you do? Well, like I said at the start. It’s a complex problem, and you can’t solve any problem without understanding it. A wise quote really comes to mind here. Abraham Lincoln was quoted as saying “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe”. Prepare properly, in other words.Preparing requires an understanding of the task. So start with understanding. Then decide what will help most. That’s what I’m going to walk through in this post. 

As I’ve stated many times, I support vaccines BUT I’m also not here to demonise or criticise anyone. Communication matters and words impact. It’s not “the problem”(ie. vaccine hesitancy/resistance), it’s how we TALK about the problem. With that, let’s talk to some people who were vaccine hesitant or resistant, Let`s get their perspectives. It isn’t enough for me to just speculate. Also, I studied microbiology. I`m biased. We all are, it’s unavoidable. Much as I’d love to be totally rational, that’s not always the case. 

  • Vulnerability

Nobody likes being a burden. Nobody likes being dependent on others. However, here’s the thing. We are. Humans need each other. We work in groups and tribes. We always have, and likely always will. No matter how digitised our lives become. Why? It’s the best chance of survival. Why are we less likely to survive alone? Because we’re vulnerable. We`re all vulnerable to infectious disease.. Yes, I hear you say, but some are more susceptible than others. True, but that’s not the point. The point is vaccines remind us how vulnerable we are to infection. This was never more true than in the COVID 19 pandemic. We were reminded of how being without just one vaccine can bring the entire world to its knees.

Image Credit: Joseph Chan,

  • Trust

It means we have to trust people who we’ve never met to vaccinate and take other health precautions such as masking, distancing etc. That is incredibly difficult for several reasons. Trust is usually seen as an intimate thing. Between close friends. Family members. Never between people who have never met. Definitely not with anything that could influence our health. However in the case of vaccines, that’s exactly what we`re asked to do. That’s scary because of my next point.

  • Lack of control

We have very little control over the decisions of others. Usually it doesn’t matter. In this case,  it is one of the most important things. Our health. Our lives, and the health of our family. The decisions of complete strangers are having a direct impact on this. We have little to no control over this.That means we have to accept a certain lack of control, and lack of control is one of our biggest fears as humans. Along with the next biggest reason I suspect people struggle with vaccine discussions

  • Fear of the unknown

Because we lack control, we simply have no idea what decisions these strangers will make. It’s unknown. We’re in the dark. This, in my experience, is another key fear we have as humans. We can`t plan. We can’t avoid it. Why? Well, we don’t know what we’re supposed to plan for exactly. Or to avoid exactly. We have to sit with a lot of uncertainty. Maybe for a very long time. That`is difficult. Even if we do, there’s no guarantee that the outcome will even be good, never mind what we hoped for. 

  • How can we communicate better about vaccines?

Speaking from experience here, the starting point to coping with these things is acceptance. Acceptance that not everyone accepts vaccines. That not everybody is willing to have genuine discussions. I`ve been called stupid, told that my ideas are illogical, and that my posts focus on the same area too much. Not everyone is genuinely open to discussion. It’s important to identify who those people are, ignore them and move on. 

  • What people keep getting wrong about vaccine hesitancy

For those that DO want to have discussion, it’s important to understand one thing. Everyone has different reasons for their vaccination decisions. I’ve often heard people say “What causes vaccine hesitancy?”. Well, not one particular thing really. Yes, there are trends, like lack of trust, lack of access, or even more than one of these. That said,  if you ask people, their reasons will be very diverse. I`ve had everything from autism fears, to feeling abandoned by healthcare providers, to social influence being a particularly common theme. Especially if surrounded by certain groups for a long period of time. I didn’t find that particularly surprising, really. We`are social beings. We all want to be liked by the right people. Regardless,  the difference in reasons for hesitancy  really gives a route into discussing how complicated the issue really is

However, this generally isn’t done in media discussions on vaccines. The extremists (ie. “pro” and “anti” vaxxers) get likes, views etc. So the media likes to talk about them, and include them in vaccine discussions. They`re only a minority of people who ask questions about vaccines. Most people simply have questions, for many different reasons. 

  • Knowing this, what do you do? How do you talk to these people?

It’s important to take people on an individual basis when discussing with them. So ask them what their particular reasons for being vaccine hesitant are. From there, you can figure out what the best way to discuss with them is. How do you even start to build the rapport with people to even do that? 

Well, regardless of who they are, the first thing to do is acknowledge their concerns. Many worries are real and valid. It’s so important to acknowledge that. When I was in college a few years ago,  I worked in a call centre that fundraised for 2 years. The most effective way to make people open to new information? Empathy. Acknowledging their concerns. It’s important to do this. Then people are more likely to engage with new ideas and viewpoints. Not guaranteed, but certainly more likely. 

  • Conclusion

In my opinion, vaccines are so controversial because they play on some of our deepest fears as humans ie. lack of control, uncertainty etc. At the same time, the specifics of these fears of course differ between people. That’s why the best chance of getting through to people is talking to them on an individual basis. Understanding and acknowledging their concerns. 

Author: I`m Elizabeth Duffy. I started developing my ideas around vaccine hesitancy at the beginning of 2022. However, I`ve been learning how to communicate about difficult topics for much longer. I studied Microbiology, and worked in a lab, as well as in fundraising and communication for three years. When I began learning about vaccine hesitancy, I felt that my scientific knowledge combined with my talent for communicating and empathising with people were the ideal combination to address vaccine hesitancy. So, I`ve dedicated myself to the issue ever since, and have written extensively on the topic at You can also follow me on Substack at







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