Background: Despite lacking scientific support, vaccine hesitancy is widespread . While vaccine damage as a scientific fact is statistically highly uncommon, emerging social and technological forces have converted probable vaccine damage into an alternative fact .
Methods: Using the Eurobarometer 91.2 survey on a statistically representative EU27-UK sample interviewed in March 2019, we documented perceptions of vaccine risks and identified three belief configurations regarding vaccine effectiveness, safety, and usefulness, through exploratory cluster analysis .
Results: The public beliefs in vaccine risks are frequent . Approximatively one-tenth of the EU27-UK population consider vaccines are not rigorously tested before authorization, one-third believe vaccines can overload or weaken the immune system and that they can cause the disease against which they protect, and almost one-half believe vaccines can cause serious side effects . We identified three belief configurations: the skeptical, the confident, and the trade-off clusters . The skeptical type (approx . 11 percent of EU27-UK respondents) is defined by the belief that vaccines are rather ineffective, affected by risks of probable vaccine damage, not well-tested, and useless; the confident type (approx . 59 percent) is defined by beliefs that vaccines are effective, safe, well-tested, and useful; and the trade-off type (approx . 29 percent) combines beliefs that vaccines are effective, well-tested and useful, with beliefs of probable vaccine damage .
Conclusions: Probable vaccine damage presently exists as an alternative fact in the public imagination, perceptively available for wide segments of the public, including those who trust medical science.