The Vaccine War
Patrick Zylberman is emeritus professor of the history of health at the École des hautes études en santé publique and a “permanent guest” at the Centre Virchow-Villermé for Public Health, both in Paris. He co-founded in 2011 and organizes the annual Val-de-Grâce Seminar on emerging infectious diseases. He was a member of the Haut Conseil de la santé publique from 2009 to 2017, as well as on the committee for the public debate on vaccination (2016). Under the CVV, he contributed to programs for training leaders for epidemic crises within the framework of the International Health Regulations.
In early 2020 a new virus paralyzes the world. Without a vaccine or treatment, humanity finds itself in a familiar situation: confronting an epidemic without weapons against it. The paradox of vaccines becomes stark: when lacking, their necessity is obvious because people are dying; when available, we become more afraid of the vaccine than of the illness.
Yet thanks to vaccines children no longer die from diseases like whooping cough and smallpox has been eliminated. Pasteur is a familiar albeit dusty monument of French national patrimony, relegated to the past because of his success: vaccines have helped us eradicate many health threats but we often forget the time before when people died from what today is only a minor illness. Without vaccinations, we are defenseless and reduced to confinement to avoid contagion, only able to ease the effects of the illness in people who contract it. Vaccines have become our major weapons against infectious diseases. But when epidemics are far away and our surroundings seem calm, it is as if the vaccine itself becomes the object of fears.
Zylberman analyzes this phenomenon and the reasons for the apparent irrationality of vaccine skeptics. He looks at the history and arguments of anti-vaccine movements, their effect on public opinion and the reactions of governments in response to previous health crises – smallpox, measles, SARS, H1N1, and others. His prognosis is rather somber: “the scientific governance of participatory democracies appears increasingly incapable of overcoming the conflicts between two legitimate camps: democratic legitimacy and scientific legitimacy.”