Story at a glance

  • Vaccines are important for preventing devastating diseases like polio and measles.
  • People who are against vaccines are concerned about possible side effects, although there is no scientific evidence that supports those claims.
  • A vaccine will be key in the fight against the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Vaccines save lives. But chances are you already know that. However, there is a community of folks who are against mandatory vaccinations — "anti-vaxxers." Some of them are against any kind of vaccination. Unfortunately, vaccine hesitancy is one of the top 10 threats to global health, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Recent reporting has found that because of the coronavirus pandemic, some "anti-vaxxers" are changing their minds while others are doubling down on their beliefs.

Reasons why people are anti-vaccination

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Some people are concerned about the health effects of vaccines on babies; none of those concerns are scientifically backed. Other people say that they don’t want to be forced to take a vaccine and that they want a choice in the matter.

Some parents opt for a different vaccination schedule for their infants that spaces out vaccines, but this schedule has not been tested for efficacy. But think of the vaccine schedule as one entity. It’s been tested and used for many years. New vaccines are put through clinical trials as part of the existing approved schedule. If you change the order, you are changing the whole thing and that could change the efficacy of any of the vaccines. Some vaccines shouldn’t be given too close to other vaccines and may not work at all in a different order or timing.


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Recent increases in the anti-vaccine movement

Experts have documented a rise in anti-vaccine sentiment in Western countries. Vaccination rates are still generally high in the U.S., for example measles immunization for children between 12 and 24 months old was 92 percent in 2018, according to the World Health organization (WHO). Where the danger lies is if a large group of unvaccinated children are in the same community, making that community’s vaccination rate much lower than 92 percent. What might be more telling is that less people in the U.S. consider vaccines as important: 84 percent in 2019 versus 94 percent in 2001.

That shift may partly be because vaccines have done their job. In recent decades, people in Western countries are typically less affected by diseases that are preventable with a vaccine. Parents don’t have to live in fear that their children are susceptible to polio or diphtheria or measles. But some have been lulled into a false sense of security. When vaccination rates drop, people become vulnerable. In the last few years, measles outbreaks have sprouted in various communities across the U.S. where vaccination rates fall below what’s needed for herd immunity.

Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic is another example of why vaccines are necessary.

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How some "anti-vaxxers" are responding to the coronavirus

Now with COVID-19, some "anti-vaxxers" are doubling down on their views and some are changing their minds about vaccines. One woman changed her mind after researching information about the coronavirus. “I wasn't actively looking for vaccine information but the more I learned, the more I realized it would help and the easier it became to recognize the lack of science in anti-vax arguments,” she tells CNN.

Another woman tells Reuters that she is 50-50 on whether she would accept a vaccine for COVID-19. “I’ve definitely thought about it,” she says. “We’re all being affected by this virus, schools closing, young people in hospital, and they still say it’s a hoax,” expressing frustration at the "anti-vaxxer" community’s downplaying the seriousness of the coronavirus.


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Some "anti-vaxxers" may be convinced that a vaccine is important because of concerns for how vaccines affect community health. “My niece is at risk if she gets coronavirus because she needs to take immune-suppressing medication,” says a woman to VICE. “The worry about that has made me think about the responsibilities I have as a mother to stop diseases from being passed onto people who would be in serious danger. I hadn’t ever considered it as a reason why you would get your child vaccinated before all of this. I would say it has made me far more on the fence.”

Others are standing strongly in their corners. “Make no mistake, the purpose of the coronavirus is to help usher in vaccine mandates. Be woke. Know the Plan. Prepare. Resist,” says Larry Cook in a Facebook post, according to CBS News. Tennis player Novak Djokovic says that he “wouldn’t want to be forced by someone to take a vaccine” in order to travel to matches, according to The Guardian.

Fighting misinformation and facing the reality

The truth is that the best weapon for fighting COVID-19 will be a vaccine, whenever it arrives. Hopefully, facts and knowledge about the science of vaccines especially in the context of a global pandemic can fight the notions that vaccines are dangerous.

People who were previously "anti-vaxxers" may change their minds because they are afraid of the consequences of refusing a vaccine. Maybe the staunch "anti-vaxxers" will stay strong in their positions, but it’s likely that the coronavirus will touch their lives in some way regardless if they believe in vaccines.

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For up-to-date information about COVID-19, check the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. For updated global case counts, check this page maintained by Johns Hopkins University.

You can follow Chia-Yi Hou on Twitter.


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Published on Apr 22, 2020