‘Rhyme or reason?’ Saying no to mass vaccination: subjective re-interpretation in the context of the A(H1N1) influenza pandemic in Sweden 2009–2010

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Abstract

During the swine flu pandemic of 2009–2010, all Swedish citizens were recommended to be vaccinated with the influenza vaccine Pandemrix. However, a very serious and unexpected side effect emerged during the summer of 2010: more than 200 children and young adults were diagnosed with narcolepsy after vaccination. Besides the tragic outcome for these children and their families, this adverse side effect suggests future difficulties in obtaining trust in vaccination in cases of emerging pandemics, and thus there is a growing need to find ways to understand the complexities of vaccination decision processes. This article explores written responses to a questionnaire from a Swedish folk life archive as an unconventional source for analysing vaccine decisions. The aim is to investigate how laypersons responded to and re-interpreted the message about the recommended vaccination in their answers. The answers show the confusion and complex circumstances and influences in everyday life that people reflect on when making such important decisions. The issue of confusion is traced back to the initial communications about the vaccination intervention in which both autonomy and solidarity were expected from the population. Common narratives and stories about the media or ‘big pharma capitalism’ are entangled with private memories, accidental coincidences and serendipitous associations. It is obvious that vaccination interventions that require compliance from large groups of people need to take into account the kind of personal experience narratives that are produced by the complex interplay of the factors described by the informants.

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