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Decades of anti-vaxx rhetoric threatens COVID herd immunity

Decades of anti-vaxx rhetoric threatens COVID herd immunity
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“Cindy” a mother in her late 30s living in Miami, Fla., with three school-aged children, was so afraid of vaccines, she refused to have her children vaccinated against diseases like mumps and measles. Public schools would not allow her children to attend without being vaccinated so, at great expense, she found a private school that accepted unvaccinated children. Where does that deep-seated fear come from? 

In recent years, the anti-vaxxer movement has been on the rise. People who distrust or fear vaccines have been vocal for decades, but it is undeniable that they are gaining greater prominence in public discourse, fueled by organizations that promote rhetoric alleging that common childhood vaccines cause autism.   

The overwhelming body of scientific evidence has established that there is no such relationship, yet the myth being perpetrated is leading to many children not being vaccinated. The predictable result is a sudden resurgence of diseases that had once been successfully eradicated. It seems a foregone conclusion that these diseases are resurfacing as a direct effect of these “pseudoscientific” allegations.

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And now, as we live through yet another public health emergency — the COVID-19 crisis — resistance to the vaccines have even greater significance. Rattled by over half a million deaths, we find ourselves in a position where getting vaccine shots into arms is absolutely critical to saving thousands of lives and overcoming the viral menace. 

Yet, despite this dire need, anti-vaxxers have further mobilized a full-throated effort to undermine public trust in vaccinations to eradicate this pandemic. Beliefs behind the rejection of vaccines are buoyed by a small number of studies that have not passed scientific muster, which are then over-interpreted to support questionable motives. This trend has already had devastating impacts on public health. Disinformation campaigns and fear tactics are directly influencing the public’s willingness to accept the COVID-19 vaccine, which could result in countless more deaths.

Science uses widely accepted standards of inquiry to inform beliefs, even when the data may at times be at odds with our preconceived view of the world. However, people like “Cindy” are being barraged by social media that confirms their biases rather than providing objective, scientific information. This phenomenon has convinced millions of people that our scientific infrastructure is compromised — taking advantage of people’s otherwise healthy skepticism.  

We also recognize, though, that scientific processes for discovering truth does not mean that we have a complete or infallible understanding of truth. But simply because science does not always render the whole truth and at times is eventually disproven and revised, we must not diminish its stature as the grandest and most reliable method for determining the truth that humans have at our disposal. 

Knowing the “truth”— to the extent science allows — is only half the battle. Being mindful of how we message that information is also critical. For example, take policy guidance around wearing masks conveyed by media outlets and the government alike. Messaging from all sources was frankly perceived as arbitrary, inconsistent and contradictory to most people. Many became frustrated as the pandemic progressed, uncertain as to whether masks were effective and whether they were helpful, harmful or simply unnecessary.   

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Skepticism is understandable in this situation, with the unfortunate consequence of sowing distrust in our scientists, doctors and institutions. At the end of the day, it is equally important to ensure that public health messages are not only rooted in science, but that we also consider how they will be interpreted by people from a range of backgrounds, beliefs and cultures.

More effective messaging campaigns state from the outset that there are some knowns and unknowns and that public health measures are based on our scientific understanding of any given phenomenon at that point in time. The guidance is based on the best available information to protect public safety and, as our knowledge evolves, so will that guidance.  

Instead, however, our inconsistent response to the pandemic opened the door for an opinion-based narrative fueled by political rancor, resulting in large swaths of our population refusing to wear masks and contributing to community spread.  The rejection of masks has carried over to distrust of the vaccines.  

Had we initiated an apolitical national campaign informed by science, we attest that everybody including “Cindy” would be clamoring to receive the vaccine — making herd immunity possible — and this conversation would be entirely unnecessary.  

Daniel Shapiro is a case manager for disabled homeless adults in Montgomery County, Md., and a member of National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives. Dr. Diana Fishbein is research faculty at The Pennsylvania State University and co-director of the National Prevention Science Coalition to Improve Lives.