The War Against Misinformation: Stakes of Vaccine Hesitancy in the United States
Updated: Apr 6
Submitted to the New York Times STEM writing contest (March 2021)
“I’m not vaccinating my kids! Vaccines cause autism!” My dad, a physician was bemused by this remark from one of his patients.
The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed over 2.5 million lives globally with almost 0.5 million in the United States alone. A vaccine that creates broad immunity against the SARS-COV2 virus could be the most effective means to control the pandemic allowing a return to “normalcy”. There are currently two vaccines (PfizerBioNTech and Moderna) being implemented in the United States. Epidemiologist and public health expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci estimates that 70% of the population would need to be vaccinated before “herd immunity” is reached. However, a poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research conducted in December 2020 revealed that only 47% of American adults planned to get the coronavirus vaccine when it became available. While some individuals have legitimate concerns about their safety given the short duration of the clinical trials, much of the prevailing hesitancy is based on misinformation as well as outlandish conspiracy theories fueled by a widespread anti-vaccine movement. Anti-vaccine Facebook pages currently outnumber pro-vaccine pages by more than 2:1.
Although vaccine hesitancy has been prevalent since the 1900s, the anti-vaccine sentiment has gained traction over the past 20 years following false claims that trivalent childhood vaccines caused “autistic enterocolitis” and vaccination rates dropped significantly. While these assertions have subsequently been refuted by credible scientists through meta-analyses published in reputable journals, anti-vaccine groups and a misinformed public continue to falsely make this association. Indeed, these disbeliefs played a major role in the re-emergence of measles in the United States which was previously eliminated in 2000.
Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization warned about an “infodemic” of COVID-19 misinformation early during the pandemic. This “infodemic” was propelled by groups that never believed that the virus was “real” in the first place. Anti-vaccination conspiracy theories converged with this misinformation and even those who believed COVID-19 was real, continued to harbor skepticism about the solution to the pandemic. Facebook had to “remove more than 12 million pieces of content on Facebook and Instagram containing misinformation that could lead to imminent physical harm.” Conspiracy theories range from claims that SARS-CoV-2 was deliberately “cultivated” in a laboratory to outlandish theories that the vaccines contain microchips which can be used to track vaccinees, all orchestrated by the global elite seeking to gain power and wealth including from vaccine sales.
Most lay-individuals are also uninformed about vaccine etiology. Contemporary vaccines, unlike their 18th century counterparts, are made up of less harmful inactivated or attenuated parts of the virus to stimulate the body’s natural immune response to develop antibodies against the actual pathogen. Both vaccines being administered in the United States (at the time of writing) are composed of small COVID-19 mRNA particles, and clinical trials have demonstrated greater than 90% efficacy with few side-effects.
Although vaccine hesitancy will not just disappear, fallacious assertions could compromise global efforts to contain the pandemic. A widespread information campaign is urgently needed, as the window to vaccinate as many individuals as possible before emerging variants of the virus compromise the efficacy of currently available vaccines. The stakes have never been higher.
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