Former Hastings Councillor Paul Barlow explores the importance of vaccination.

After the novelty of COVID-19 self-isolation wore off (about four days!) I started thinking about how we dealt with infections previously. In my East End school during the 1970s we had an inspiring nun teaching us RE – she didn’t wear the habit, which she said had developed from humble clothes, so her navy cardigan and skirt and white blouse were more in keeping. She lived in a council flat, was radical in her teaching, but most of all made sure we met people we wouldn’t come across on our council estate. 

One of these was Pam. Pam was almost immobile and near horizontal, using a huge wheelchair. Severely disabled by polio as a child in the 1950s, she spoke of her life, and how nobody else need struggle like she did because of the introduction of the Polio vaccine. We had all taken the oral vaccine placed on a sugar cube when we were younger. 

The 1950s Polio epidemic ravaged families with 8,000 cases a year –10% resulting in death. The iron lung was a regular sight in hospitals, breathing for those with collapsed lungs. Pam was the voice of 43,000 children who contracted Polio in that decade. Yet ten years later numbers were negligible.


We’ve come leaps and bounds since then, with vaccinations for several conditions. TB was rife in the east end, but better conditions and the BCG vaccination virtually wiped it out. Smallpox is now but a memory. Yet we are now falling back. Why? Because in 1998 Dr Wakefield published a flawed study into the MMR vaccine in The Lancet linking it to autism. The study has since been completely discredited and the doctor struck off the medical register. Subsequent research found no link. Wakefield was found to have undisclosed financial conflicts of interest, to have been dishonest and to have mistreated children with delayed development. The BMJ called his work “an elaborate fraud”. A journalist found Wakefield planned to capitalise on the scare by forming a company that would profit from “litigation-driven testing”.


But the findings took hold and spread across an internet barely policed and lacking fact checking. Social media gave anti-vaxxers a platform. Vaccination rates fell leading to outbreaks of disease like measles. The MMR rate for Hastings in 2013 was 85% – far below the coverage needed to stop the spread to those who, for health reasons, couldn’t have the vaccination. Across the country immunisation fell to 73%.

While all vaccination pro-cedures show side effects in a minority, these are outweighed by the benefits. The human story of one child’s side effect is heard and shared by worried parents, yet the miracle of health for many millions of children is not newsworthy. We need to deliver to parents unbiased information – but we must also stop the spread of falsehoods. It’s heartening now to see how quickly Facebook respond to my reports of snake oil adverts aiming to stop Coronavirus. 


Vaccination relies on trust and the knowledge that benefits outweigh risks. Re-establishing that trust is the duty of all of us. Challenge unproven assumptions on social media, report fake news and commit to finding out a little more than we already know about vaccinations. Amid this global pandemic, anti-vax voices are less vocal. The complacency in our lives of minimal infectious diseases is shattered, and countries are collaborating to produce a vaccine. May it come soon, with minimal side effects and maximum benefits for us all.

Paul Barlow is a School Partnership Manager and was a Hastings Councillor for four years.

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