The PLEA: Legal Immunity

The PLEA: Legal Immunity

The Shapes of Vaccine Hesitancy

Science is not always perfect. Fears—justified or not—about medicine help explain hesitancy and outright opposition to vaccines.

For as long as there have been vaccines, there have been people who have questions about or are outrightly critical of vaccines. Doctors sometimes call these people vaccine hesitant. In popular culture, they are often called anti-vaxxers. People with vaccine hesitancy exist across society. Their reasons for being hesitant are diverse.

The anti-vaccine movement emerged alongside the smallpox vaccine. At the time, medical science had determined that the smallpox vaccine worked. However, medical science did not yet understand how germs caused diseases. This lack of knowledge meant that vaccinations were risky, and performed with unsterilised equipment. Catching a disease from vaccination was a very real possibility.

Because of the risks, people were not wrong to ask questions. That said, smallpox was painful, disfiguring, and often lethal. Most people weighed the risks against the benefits, and determined that vaccination was the best course forward.

Smallpox was painful, disfiguring, and often lethal. Most people weighed the risks against the benefits, and determined that vaccination was the best course forward.

Smallpox went into decline, due almost entirely to vaccinations. Yet, opposition to vaccines grew. At first blush, this seems illogical: a vaccine subduing a disease is proof that it works. However, the decline of smallpox meant that few people experienced its horrors first-hand. With the public memory of smallpox fading, space was created for people to capture the public imagination with vaccine risks. And capture it, they did. By the late 1800s, anti-vaccination leagues were popping up everywhere, pitting many citizens against the medical community.

The concerns of the anti-vaccination leagues of this era were not all unwarranted, and the freedom we have in a liberal democracy to offer constructive criticism often works to make things better. Critics continued to worry about catching diseases from vaccination. To that they tacked on questions about vaccine ingredients. Some religious people joined in, concerned about body purity. People opposed to animal experimentation added to the chorus. And some civil liberties advocates jumped on board, criticising laws of the day that made vaccines mandatory.

The issues raised by early anti-vaccination movements were never fully settled. Public opinion was instead won over by results: as the 20th century proceeded, diseases ranging from polio to rabies were safely tamed, thanks in no small part to vaccines.

Nonetheless, history echoes. With so many diseases subdued over the 20th century, space has again been created to capture the public imagination with vaccine risks. Today, many people are declining vaccines. The result? More and more disease outbreaks. The trend led the World Health Organisation to declare anti-vaccination movements one of 2019’s top-ten threats to health.

No single personality trait or fact explains why people embrace vaccine hesitancy. Just as a member of a small orthodox religious community may be hesitant because they accept the authority of their faith leaders, a member of a small “hippy” town may be hesitant because they reject the authority of government and large pharmaceutical corporations. And just as a member of a minority community may be hesitant due to a history of unethical, racist medical experiments, a member of an affluent white community may be hesitant because of advice from a fee-based alternative medicine practitioner. Vaccine hesitancy is a complex mix.

Canada’s laws recognise the complexity associated with vaccine hesitancy. They attempt to balance the need for public health with the desire of some individuals to refuse vaccines. How the law balances these conflicting interests will be discussed on pages 10 and 11.

Conspiracy Theories

Some anti-vaccination beliefs are based in nothing more than conspiracy theories. Most conspiracy theories begin with a grain of truth, then quickly become unhinged from reality. Social media can push along conspiracy theories, as algorithms feed people information they already agree with. Add to that, people often bubble together in echo chambers, where they only hear self-reinforcing arguments from like-minded people. Together, in these increasingly narrow halls of discussion, far-fetched anti-vaxxer claims like “vaccines turn people into 5G antennas” can become some people’s “truth.”

While it is healthy for us to become informed, we need to be careful about what information we put stock in. Relying on echo chambers or social media algorithms to gather information does not lead to well-informed people. In fact, it is the exact opposite of the classic public square, where everybody ideally would get together to learn from each other, and to reach informed decisions.

Misinformation and outright conspiracy theories grow when people abandon mutual trust and avoid having broad-based, good-faith discussions.


  1. In 2018, countless millions of vaccines were given in Canada. Only 221 people reported adverse effects, primarily allergic reactions. Why do we seldom talk about the times things go as planned?
  2. In her book On Immunity, Eula Biss reminds us that “groups of people, if they are sufficiently diverse, and free to disagree, can provide us with thinking superior to any one expert.”
    1. Do you agree? Can we solve problems better if we act collectively?
    2. How do respectful conversations help bring about superior thinking?
    3. Can you think of times when groups have made objectively bad decisions?
  3. Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees freedom of expression.
    1. Can we come to good conclusions without this freedom?
    2. Charter freedoms are subject to “reasonable limits… demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” What is a reasonable limit to freedom of expression?