A non-trivial minority did not get vaccine against COVID-19. People who are vaccine resistant tend to hold strong views. The issue has become a flashpoint in several countries, and is puzzling to many.

It has resulted in strained relationships, even within families, and at a macro level has threatened social cohesion, such as during the month-long protest on parliament grounds in Wellington, New Zealand.

This raises the question of where the anti-vaccination feelings come from. Many adult attitudes, traits and behaviors have their roots in childhood. This insight prompted us to inquire about vaccine resistance among members of the long-running Dunedin Study, which marks 50 years this month.

The national vaccine roll out in New Zealand began in August 2021. The findings support the idea that anti-vaccination views stem from childhood experiences.

The 1972- 73 birth cohort of the Dunedin Study has amassed a wealth of information on many aspects of their lives, including their physical health and personal experiences, as well as long-standing values, motives, lifestyles, information-processing capacities and emotional tendencies.

The majority of the study members responded to the survey. 13 percent of our group didn't plan to bevaccinated, with similar numbers of men and women.

Abuse, maltreatment, deprivation or neglect, as well as having an alcoholic parent, were some of the adverse childhood experiences of vaccine resistant adults.

These experiences would have made their childhood unpredictable and contributed to a lifelong legacy of distrust in authorities. The findings are summarized in this figure.

The Dunedin Study is CC BY-ND.

People in the vaccine-resistant group were vulnerable to frequent extreme emotions of fear and anger according to personality tests at age 18. When under stress, they tended to shut down.

They reported at age 15 that there is nothing they can do to improve their health. Teenagers often jump to the conclusion that they are being threatened.

The group described themselves as non-conformists who valued personal freedom and self-reliance. Many experienced mental health problems as they grew older because of apathy, faulty decision-making and susceptibility to conspiracy theories.

Some vaccine-resistant study members had cognitive difficulties since childhood, along with their early-life adversities and emotional vulnerabilities. They were poor readers in high school and scored low on the tests of verbal comprehension and processing speed. The amount of effort and time a person requires to decode incoming information is measured by these tests.

It would be hard for anyone to comprehend complicated health information under calm conditions. It can lead to vaccine decisions that seem inexplicable to health professionals when comprehension difficulties combine with the extreme negative emotions of vaccine resistant people.

New Zealand has achieved a very high vaccination rate, which is 10 percent higher than in England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland and 20 percent higher than in the US.

The death rate in New Zealand is 71. The US has 2,949 deaths per million, the UK has 2,423 deaths per million, and Canada has 971 deaths per million.

How do we reconcile our finding that 13 percent of our cohort were vaccine resistant and the national vaccination rate now sits at 95 percent? There are a number of factors that contributed to the high rate.

They include:

  • The prime minster and director-general of health communicate well.

  • Initial fear about the arrival of new variant, Delta and Omicron.

  • The implementation of vaccine mandates and border closing have become controversial.

  • The government of vaccination responsibilities to community groups, particularly those at highest risk, include those with mental health challenges.

The community-driven approach harnesses more intimate knowledge about people and their needs to create high trust in decision-making.

This is consistent with our findings that show the importance of understanding individual life histories and different ways of thinking about the world, which are both attributable to adversities experienced by some people early in life. The added benefit of encouraging a more compassionate view towards vaccine resistance is that it might translate into higher rates of vaccine readiness.

The move from a one-size-fits-all approach was too slow for many. Achieving high vaccination rates has not been free of cost to individuals, families and communities. It would be unrealistic to not expect some residual resentment or anger among those most heavily affected by these decisions, as it has been a struggle to convince many citizens to get vaccine.

Preparing for the next pandemic

It is unlikely that COVID-19 will be the last one. Recommendations about how governments should prepare for future Pandemics often involve medical technology solutions such as improvements in testing, vaccine delivery and treatments, as well as better-prepared hospitals.

Other recommendations include a world Pandemic fund, more resilient supply chains and global coordination of vaccine distribution. The appreciation that vaccine resistance is a lifelong psychological style of misinterpreting information during crisis situations that is laid down before high school age is the contribution of our research.

National preparation for future Pandemics should include preventive education to teach school children about virus epidemiology, mechanisms of infection, and vaccines. The public can appreciate the need for hand-washing, mask-wearing, social distancing and vaccination if they are educated.

Early education about vaccines and viruses could provide citizens with a pre-existing knowledge framework, reduce citizens level of uncertainty in a future pandemic, and enhance openness to health messaging. The third vital tool in a prepared citizenry is technology and money.

There are two messages. Do not belittle vaccine-resistant people, but rather try to understand where they are coming from and address their concerns without judgement. The local communities that vaccine resisters trust the most are the ones that are most empowering.

The second key insight points to a longer-term strategy that involves education and vaccinations in protecting the community. It must be delivered in an appropriate way when children are young. It is not a matter of if, but when when when it comes to future Pandemics.

The Director of the University of Otago's Multi-disciplinary Health & Development Research Unit (DMHDRU) is Richie Poulton.

This article is free to use under a Creative Commons license. The original article is worth a read.