OPINION (Therese Raphael via Bloomberg Opinion) — With any luck, one of the handful of promising Covid-19 vaccines currently going through human trials will meet with regulatory approval, maybe even in time for winter. One thing worrying public health officials, though, is what happens if a significant number of people don’t want to be vaccinated.
Vaccines are responsible for saving millions of lives every year, and yet there has always been a small but hardcore contingent of anti-vaxxers that rejects the science or buys into conspiracy theories about immunizations. Unfortunately, their ranks are growing during the current crisis. National health authorities, along with the World Health Organization, are engaged in a furious game of whack-a-mole as they try to knock down the conspiracy theories and correct misinformation.
Countering the anti-vaxxers is important work, but it’s only part of the picture. The bigger danger is a broader vaccine hesitancy: What if rational people who get their flu shots and vaccinate their children, and who are eager to be part of the solution to this pandemic, have worries that public health authorities and governments don’t address?
The World Health Organization lists vaccine hesitancy as one of its top 10 global health threats. One in six U.K. respondents to a June YouGov survey said they definitely or probably would not get vaccinated. A CNN poll in May showed a third of Americans would not try to get a vaccine if it existed. Like everything else in the U.S., opinion on a vaccine varies along party lines, with 81% of Democrats and only 51% of Republicans keen to get vaccinated.
Some of the skepticism reflects a mistrust of Big Pharma, some of it a mistrust of government. Some of it is simply because it’s been a long time since we lived in fear of the many diseases that vaccines now protect against.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S.’s top infectious disease expert, has said that a vaccine that is 70% to 75% effective but taken by only two-thirds of the public would not create the herd immunity necessary for economies to get back up and running. So governments have a lot riding on not only securing an immunization program but on making sure people take part.
However, if a vaccine overpromises, if the risks are not clearly explained or if there are problems with delivery, it could further undermine trust in authorities, institutions and even experts, with far-reaching consequences for public health and the economy. It’s hard to imagine another time when there was so much riding not just on the science, but on how it’s communicated.
Any doubts over the quality of a vaccine, which can also be affected by inadequate storage or transport, will impact trust. And that trust was being sorely tested even before the pandemic. In the U.S., a near epidemic of overprescribing, especially of opioids, has increased skepticism of both doctors and drug companies. Black and minority communities hit hardest by Covid-19 might have the most reason to line up for vaccines, but vaccination rates are lower among minority groups because of lower levels of trust from historical abuses.
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