VACCINE: A LIFESAVER OR A CONSPIRACY THEORY?

VACCINE: A LIFESAVER OR A CONSPIRACY THEORY?

The coronavirus pandemic has continued to cause serious harm to the global economy and has brought the most developed countries to their knees. Amongst this consistent harm, a vaccine is often being presented as the only way out of the quagmire that is COVID-19. However, with recent talks about relative successes of some vaccines, debates about the effectiveness of vaccines and surrounding conspiracy theories have also cropped up. 

There are several reasons why vaccines are not trusted, including religious and political reasons. This is exasperated by the misinformation that is spread wildly about the science behind vaccines, and the validity of such claims. Ultimately, it all boils down to how much government entities and other community leaders can propel misinformation about vaccines, and the fact that decisions about vaccines might affect the community at large.

Medical Objections Against Vaccinations

A study conducted by Andrew Wakefield in 1998 linked autism to the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. It was later discredited and retracted, however, this study is still referenced as a reason to not vaccinate children, or has at least kept the idea prevalent. People often believe that vaccines are more harmful than the diseases they might prevent because of their side effects. The same sentiment is being referenced to in recent objections about a coronavirus vaccine. Pharmaceutical companies and governments are moving at record speeds to come up with a vaccine for the coronavirus. However, this is also fuelling uncertainty and hesitancy about vaccines.

The common folk is worried about compromising quality in the race for a vaccine, and some experts agree: Oksana Pyzik, who is a senior teaching fellow at the University College London School of Pharmacy says, “The fact that it’s being crunched into such a short period has been a cause for concern”. There is also a large mistrust of big pharmacy companies at play here along with a general mistrust against science and experts. People believe that the science that is provided in support of vaccines is either falsified for profit or can be proven incorrect in the future. In the case of the coronavirus vaccine, trials are being conducted one after the other without time to properly gauge the implications of the previous trial. Vaccine development can take decades; hence it is only natural that there are doubts about the safety of a coronavirus vaccine developed in less than a year.

Religious and Political Objections

Vaccines can also bring religious objections – the MMR vaccine and the rubella vaccine had been previously derived from fetal tissue. Opposition to abortion present in religions such as Hinduism, Islamism and Jewism can translate into opposition to vaccines. Religious reasons such as these are brought into play when we consider the fact that schools grant exemptions to children based on religious grounds. Schools might continue to do so even when a coronavirus vaccine comes into being, which can be a concern for overall public safety if parents want to send unvaccinated children to school citing religious objections.

Objections to a vaccine are often part of a bigger picture which includes discourse on government intervention. Opinions on a vaccine can vary along party lines, with 81% of Democrats and only 51% of Republicans keen to get vaccinated in the United States. Certain people can value individual liberty and not want the government to intervene in vaccination-related decisions, which is why Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984 said that the United States will not make a coronavirus vaccine mandatory. The idea that vaccination is increasingly becoming compulsory in order to attend school is, in turn, fuelling the anti-vaccination sentiments. People valuing freedom are interpreting this as an infringement of their rights. A study titled “The psychological roots of anti-vaccination attitudes: A 24-nation investigation” found that there is a correlation between anti-vaccination sentiments and “reactance” which is described as “the tendency for people to have a low tolerance for impingements on their freedoms”. 

Coronavirus Vaccines and Future Steps

Dr Anthony Fauci has also said that a vaccine taken by only two-thirds of the public would not create the herd immunity we want – in order for economies to get back up and running. In uncertain times such as these, one of the ways to vaccinate people is to either have governments make vaccinations mandatory. Dr Fauci’s previous comment about mandatory vaccination being unlikely in the United States could be indicative of an approach many countries could take. In such a scenario, it is important that there are discussions and discourse regarding vaccine safety. 

People often do not rely solely on doctors for medical advice, or at least have different sources than can influence their medical decisions. There needs to be a coming together of leaders in the community – religious leaders, celebrities and politicians – in order to combat misinformation and to encourage people to get vaccinated. Secondly, it is important to address religious concerns. Though most religious organizations do not actively oppose vaccination, there is sometimes opposition to vaccination in certain religions. Religious leaders could be instrumental in combating vaccine hesitancy – against coronavirus and other preventable diseases. 

Such a sentiment on discourse about vaccines is best represented by Dr Mike Ryan’s quote. Dr Ryan, who is executive director of World Health Organisation’s health emergencies programme, said that people need to be allowed to have conversations about vaccines – “It’s not a one-way street. It’s not about shoving things down people’s throats. It’s about having a proper discussion, good information, good discussion on this and people will make up their own minds,” he was quoted saying.

Properly publishing information on how vaccines are developed and how safe they are can quell medical objections to vaccines. Propelling rumours and misinformation is important – despite the sped-up process, vaccines are still going through required checks and tests before being made available to the public. Moreover, data from trials is being verified from other sources too. People often have worries about the authenticity of medical equipment. For example, the WHO says that 1 in 10 medical products are either fake or below a certain standard. This is all a part of the mistrust people have of “big pharma”, and even the government. Conspiracy theories have cropped up saying the government might inject microchips in the vaccines. Such rumours increase vaccine hesitancy and need to be combated by emphasising the importance of vaccines in public safety.

Conclusion

All efforts and resources including medical personnel, money and infrastructure that is being put into the development of a coronavirus vaccine will be in vain if people refuse to get vaccinated if and when a vaccine becomes available. Making the vaccine mandatory is something a lot of countries might be unable to do. In this situation debunking conspiracy theories and having trust in public safety experts and doctors is crucial. In fact, it is important to trust medical experts in all matters related to vaccines. Even the WHO has included vaccine hesitancy in its list of top 10 global health threats and that goes on to show how important it is for discourse to happen on the importance and safety of vaccines. 

Drishti Jalan

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