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Gallup Vault: New Vaccines Not Wildly Popular in U.S.
Gallup Vault

Gallup Vault: New Vaccines Not Wildly Popular in U.S.

by Shannon Mullen O'Keefe

In 1954, shortly after the newly developed polio vaccine became available, Dr. George Gallup interpreted Americans' reaction to it positively, saying, "The public itself is very optimistic about the effectiveness of the Salk test. By more than a 13-to-1 ratio, the people interviewed who expressed an opinion feel that the new vaccine will work."

To be precise, 53% thought the vaccine would work, 4% thought it would not, 33% were unsure and 10% were not familiar with the vaccine at all. That same year, Gallup found 60% of Americans saying they were willing to take the new vaccine themselves, while 31% said they would not.

This level of skepticism about a new vaccine has proven not unique to polio, as similar percentages of Americans have expressed reluctance about four subsequent vaccines measured over the years.

  • Three years later, in 1957, 20% said they would not take an Asian flu vaccine, with 15% saying they were unsure.

  • Even higher percentages said they would not take new vaccines for smallpox in 2002 (45% would not or were unsure) and the swine flu in 2009 (45%).

  • The 35% who now say they would not take a COVID-19 vaccine once it becomes available is right within the historical range.

Americans' Initial Reactions to Taking New Vaccines
  Yes, would take No, would not Not sure
  % % %
2020 Jul 20-Aug 2 (COVID-19) 65 35 --
2009 Aug 26 (Swine flu) 55 42 3
2002 Nov 11-14 (Smallpox) 55 35 10
1957 Aug 29-Sep 4 (Asian flu)^ 65 20 15
1954 May 2-7 (Polio)^ 60 31 9
^ Based on those who had heard/read about the vaccine (90% for polio; 92% for Asian flu)

Party Differences on Vaccines First Evident in 1957

When asked this year, 47% of Republicans said they would get vaccinated if a free and FDA-approved vaccine for COVID-19 were available, compared with 59% of independents and 81% of Democrats. Although wider than the previously seen partisan differences, today's gap in receptiveness to a COVID-19 vaccine did not appear out of the blue.

As early as 1957, Gallup found a gap in willingness to take a new vaccine by party affiliation. When asked about the Asian flu vaccine that year, 62% of Republicans were willing to take the new vaccine, along with 70% of Democrats. This pattern continued in 2002 and 2009. In 2002, 49% of Republicans expressed willingness to take the new smallpox vaccine, compared with 60% of Democrats. In 2009, 47% of Republicans and 62% of Democrats had a similar sentiment about the swine flu vaccine.

Americans' Initial Reaction to Taking New Vaccines, by Party Affiliation
% Yes, would get vaccine
  Democrats Independents Republicans Gap between
Democrats and Republicans
  % % % pct. pts.
2020 (COVID-19) 81 59 47 34
2009 (Swine flu) 62 56 47 15
2002 (Smallpox) 60 56 49 11
1957 (Asian flu) 70 60 62 8
1954 (Polio) 61 55 59 2

Significant Minority Unwilling to Take Vaccines

While medical authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, encourage vaccination, Americans' historical attitudes about vaccinations demonstrate that health professionals will likely face some resistance in persuading the public to take any new vaccine. Past opinion patterns also suggest that certain population subgroups will likely express more hesitation than others.

View the original 1954 Gallup news release (PDF download).

Read more about American vaccines.

These data can be found in Gallup Analytics.

Read more from the Gallup Vault.

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