Distrust of vaccines is an issue across the globe — the World Health Organization has pointed to it as one of the top threats to global public health. While some anti-vax adherents latch onto pseudoscience and conspiracy theories, in Japan the skepticism is rooted in the country’s uneasy history with shots.
Japan is positioned very well for Covid-19 inoculations, having agreements to secure enough doses to cover its population and more. But as Bloomberg reported, it has one of the lowest vaccine-confidence rates in the world, according to a study published in September, and a recent domestic poll showed 36% of respondents didn’t want to get the coronavirus shot.
Japanese wariness of vaccines and their side effects could challenge vaccination rates — and what some see as the country’s ability to return to normal.
The country’s aversion stems from past adverse events involving vaccines, including a measles, mumps and rubella inoculation in the early 1990s that was linked to higher rates of aseptic meningitis (though no causal relationships were ever established). Such history continues to be played up by some domestic media outlets. Meanwhile, legal rulings encouraged the government to take a passive stance on vaccination.
The message to the public was that vaccines are to be taken at one’s own risk, instead of something done for the greater public good.
Ironically, Japan’s relative success in handling the pandemic means there’s less urgency to inoculate the population. Even as cases have risen to record levels recently in the midst of a winter wave, by absolute value infection numbers are a small fraction of what is being reported in the U.S. and the U.K.
The Covid-19 shot is set to become available next year here in Japan, but whether people ultimately get the jab may play out in the court of public opinion. As I watched doctor friends in the U.S. proudly share photos of themselves getting vaccinated and encouraging others to do so when it is their turn, I wondered if Japan would be up to do the same.