COVID-19,  Opinion,  Public Health,  Times of Israel

No more anti-vaxxers: Now is the time for adequate health education

[Repost from the Times of Israel]

       It’s early November, almost 11 months into the global COVID-19 pandemic and it appears we’re nowhere near the end of it. While some countries have opted for complete lockdown (Israel included) and others tried to ride out the first wave of infection, it appears that we’re all ending up at the same finish line: increasing numbers of infected and diseased individuals, as well as economic disaster and widespread unemployment.

       Often mentioned as way out of the pandemic is ”herd immunity”: achieved when a majority of the population is immune to a virus, either through its natural cause of disease or vaccination. Countries that previously choose to ride the wave opted for the natural way: if only enough people catch the virus, the rest of the population will benefit from their immunity against the virus because it limits the spread. However, this involves many people still catching the virus. And if there is something that the last months have taught us it’s that COVID-19 is something one does NOT want to catch. Although some symptoms are relatable to the flu, this novel coronavirus has proven to be much more severe and deathly in its acute moment, and many people – including those showing only mild symptoms during the infection period – still experience a variety of complaints even months after the infection. Hospitals are overburdened, much remains unknown, and each human life is simply just too costly to sacrifice in this on-going battle.

       The only resort to get out of this pandemic thus appears to be vaccination. Although a possible approved vaccine is still at least months – if not years – away, different companies have started their clinical trial phases and there thus appears to be progress. Moderna even claims to be able to start a vaccination program using their mRNA vaccine as soon as early 2021.

       However, just as much as there needs to be an effective and safe vaccine, there also needs to be a population that is willing to take the vaccine. And this step should NOT be forgotten.

       Gallup – one of the USAs main analytical companies – found in one of their COVID-related opinion polls that the confidence in a vaccine significantly dropped since July. Where in July 66% of the participants said to be willing to take a FDA-approved shot, in August this had dropped to 61% and in September even further to already only 51%. Although obviously this is based on American analysis, it is thought that these trends in thoughts and opinions are common among most developed countries, thus including Israel. But how come?

       Truth is, it mainly comes down to one simple fact: the spreading of fake ”facts” around the media, especially social media. One important reoccurring theory is that this coronavirus is a hoax: either it’s just a political tool, it’s been invented by the pharmaceutical companies, or it was China’s way to dominate the world, etc. In same line, hospitals are being accused of publishing fake numbers, doctors have been accused of taking money for blowing up the severity of the cases (by no one less than their own president). And it goes further: why adhere to any measures – i.e. masks, social distancing, proper hand hygiene, etc – if there is no pandemic and no coronavirus at all? And really, who wouldn’t want to believe there is nothing going on? But just because we want to believe in fairytales, doesn’t mean there isn’t such a thing as the real reality.

       With the current amount of harsh criticism and increasing number of conspiracy theory-believers even the smallest safety problem will lead to mass rejection of a future vaccine, thus making it even more complicated to develop a safe vaccine and implement and execute an intervention program. And this is absolutely crucial in the next steps of the global coronavirus battle.

       Herd immunity through a vaccine is simply not going to achieve any big results if there are not enough people to take the vaccine. And with the current massive believe in COVID-related conspiracy theories, I really doubt that at this point we will be able to achieve a satisfying level vaccinated individuals to achieve the herd immunity threshold necessary to tackle COVID-19. Although all our hope seems to be focused on the development of a vaccine, it should thus not be forgotten to also invest in proper health education. We must invest in stopping the anti-science, anti-maskers, and anti-vaxxers right now. Because it’s literally coming down to a matter of life and death.