The global effort by anti-vaxxers to destroy confidence in Covid-19 vaccines

Dec 22, 2020

With the global effort to immunise 8 billion people leaving the station the challenges involved are immense.

Credit – Unsplash

Two of the many crucial strategies needed are of particular importance. To generate the ‘herd immunity’ needed to deprive the virus of hosts in which it can multiply we will need 70% of the community to be vaccinated. We also need communities to achieve this figure over a short period of time as antibodies levels generated by a vaccine will inevitably wane over time. We need high levels of protective antibodies in 70% of the community simultaneously.

To achieve this goal, distribution efficiency will be critical but so will the population’s confidence that the vaccine is safe and effective. As if the pandemic itself is not challenging enough, we must reckon with the dangerous misinformation campaigns from anti-vaccination advocates around the globe aimed at destroying the needed confidence.

While a relatively small, though not insignificant, number of people are irrevocably opposed to any form of vaccination, most damage is done in producing a lack of confidence that results in hesitancy that can make it more difficult to quickly immunise sufficient people to have vaccines maximally effective.

With the Covid virus killing more than 3000 people daily in the US, the country’s Surgeon General addressing the imminent rollout of a Covid vaccine noted: “A vaccine is of no use if you are dead and no use to you if you don’t get vaccinated.” The latter point was important as some 42% of Americans are voicing reluctance to be vaccinated.

Watching Fox News in the US is a masochistic exercise, for frustration levels are almost unbearable as the channel’s hosts pour out dangerous misinformation about the public health efforts needed to contain the Covid epidemic. There can be no doubt that their sycophantic promotion of President Trump’s politicisation of the epidemic has contributed to the US having the most lethal epidemic in the world.

In a display of irresponsibility, outrageous even for Murdoch’s Fox news channel standards, Fox personality Laura Ingraham recently interviewed a ‘retired microbiologist’ with no established credibility, who warned viewers that Covid vaccines are too dangerous to use and urged avoidance. “Why is that?” asked Laura, obviously enjoying the controversial moment. “Well,” said the microbiologist, “your producer told me the interview was limited to three minutes and it would take about 15 minutes to explain my concerns.”

Laura apologised for the brevity required and promised a follow-up interview with more time. Not a hint that she was distancing herself from this dangerous nonsense. A few days later she was discussing vaccination with arch Trump supporter Sean Hannity and told her unfortunately large audience that she would not be willing to be vaccinated.

There is nothing new about anti-vaccination propaganda. During the height of the smallpox epidemic in the UK at the end of the 19th century, charlatans were warning of the damage the vaccine would cause and offered ‘alternative’ but useless options. Major newspapers in London at the time were delighted when they could report that a doctor, a very vocal critic of vaccination, had in fact had himself vaccinated!

Today, as the Covid-19 pandemic roars across the planet, scaring people away from being vaccinated is particularly dangerous. While a few countries such as our own have used successful, if at times draconian, public health measures to contain the local epidemic, weariness with this approach or an erroneous ‘fingers crossed’ reliance on herd immunity developing and containing the epidemic tell us that vaccination is the only remedy likely to end the Covid scourge.

The dangerous misinformation being peddled by anti-vaccination advocates includes claims that the Covid vaccines contain mind-altering substances (or even microchips) that will make it easier for governments to control their citizens. Then there is the frequent suggestion that the vaccine will trigger autism and autoimmune diseases. The enormous popularity and involvement of so many in various forms of social media have provided anti-vaxxers with the ideal tool they wanted to influence millions of people.

The epidemic of misinformation, often delivered with much vitriol, has led to the creation of an organisation called the ‘Centre for Countering Digital Hate’ (CCDH). The principals involved have strongly criticised social media companies for allowing the anti-vaccine movement propaganda to remain on their platforms. Their research shows that social media accounts held by so-called anti-vaxxers have increased their following by at least 7·8 million people since 2019. They report that “The decision to continue hosting known misinformation content and actors online left anti-vaxxers ready to pounce on the opportunity presented by coronavirus”. The WHO has warned of an ‘infodemic’ of false information about COVID-19 spreading online.

The CCDH notes that 31 million people follow anti-vaccine groups on Facebook, with 17 million people subscribing to similar accounts on YouTube. They have calculated that the anti-vaccine movement could realise US $1 billion in annual revenues for social media firms. As much as $989 million could accrue to Facebook and Instagram alone, largely from advertising targeting the 38·7 million followers of anti-vaccine accounts.

A recent report found that around one in six British people were unlikely to agree to being vaccinated against Covid-19. A similar proportion had yet to make up their mind. The survey found that individuals who relied on social media for information on the pandemic were more hesitant about the potential vaccine. A recent six-country study reported that around a third of respondents had seen “a lot or a great deal of false or misleading” information about COVID-19 on social media during the previous week.

It is reasonable to anticipate that widespread vaccination will be available to the Australian public by April or May of 2021. Although we have high rates of vaccination we must not presume that Australians are immune to anti-Covid vaccine propaganda. In May rallies around Australia organised by the Australian branch of ‘Millions March Against Mandatory Vaccinations’ saw, in Sydney, a crowd of several hundred voicing their concerns about, not just vaccinations, but the dangers of 5G wireless technology, the coronavirus lockdown and general government overreach into people’s lives.

Clearly, we need to start our own pro-vaccination advocacy now emphasising both the safety and the importance of a massive uptake of the opportunity to be vaccinated. A media blitz from the Federal Department of Health on the benefits of Covid vaccination that would include social media platforms should be an urgent priority.

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