I recently listened to a radio interview comparing Sweden to the US with regard to vaccination rates. I should emphasize the fact that the two countries share very little in common when it comes to healthcare, which naturally informs the average citizen about their medical choices BUT one detail stood out to me. Herd Immunity.

For years it was a term limited to my geeky global health cohort, but in Sweden, the ethos of herd immunity is on the minds of most average citizens.

A study by Björn Rönnerstrand published in The Scandinavian Journal of Public Health in 2013 investigated the connection between social capitol indicators and immunization during the 2009 H1N1 influenza season.

The takeaway?

Swedes who opted to vaccinate had higher levels of trust – trust in the healthcare system and in society. (Again, we share very little in common) What blew my mind was reading that the Swedish Institute for Communicable Disease Control created this slogan: “Be vaccinated to protect your fellow citizens.”  A slogan!  An others-focused slogan! Beyond promoting individual protection, this was about caring for others and ensuring communities felt secure.

Elizabeth Bruenig, a staff writer at The New Republic said in her interview, “In Sweden, it’s very common to think of vaccines as something that you do because you’re going to be in contact with people who are vulnerable to illness. It’s a way of protecting them”….“[they] all use [their] bodies sort of as human shields for people whose bodies just don’t have the capacity to be vaccinated or to withstand these diseases.”

Since listening to this quick interview, I’ve asked a number of friends with children if they could tell me why they chose to vaccinate their kids. Their answers were quite interesting. No one told me it was to protect others, rather, I heard sentiments of fear (of infection) and distrust in their communities. And honestly, I don’t blame them.

Our culture prides itself on individualism, privacy, and freedom of choice – issues that happen to be at the center of the heated healthcare debate in this country! [I’ll dive into that another time] I hate to admit it, but there’s something very American about the anti-vaccine movement. We’ve gotten very used to being able to say, “Don’t tell me how to live my life!” There’s no denying that avoiding future outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases is wrapped up in politics. I’ll go out on a limb here and say there isn’t a lot of trust in that department. I’m convinced that vaccine refusal rates in America won’t drop until our culture adopts a more Swedish interpretation of being a good neighbor, one that cares for others and ensures their communities feel secure.

You can listen to the radio story from PRI here:


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Categories: Infectious Disease + Vaccines, Policy, Politics, + Pop Health