With Pfizer announcing its viable contender in the running to be the first Covid-19 vaccine available, many are hopeful that this may be the beginning of the end of the coronavirus pandemic. However, a global growth of distrust in vaccines threatens to stymie the world’s fight against Covid-19.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have experienced a worldwide impatience for a Covid-19 vaccine. A vaccine would be the safest path to herd immunity, a phenomenon that occurs when a virus can no longer spread because a large majority of the population is not susceptible. We have herd immunity for viruses like smallpox and measles, because enough people have been preventatively vaccinated, which protects against smaller populations for whom vaccination is not an option (ie. individuals with immune deficiency, like cancer patients).
Despite this, 60% of Americans expressed uncertainty about getting a Covid-19 vaccine in a recent survey, with 1 in 5 American children having at least one “vaccine hesitant” parent, according to a recent report from the CDC. These numbers reflect record high levels of vaccine hesitancy in the United States, with similar statistics in other leading nations.
Vaccine hesitancy, defined as “the mental state of holding back in doubt or decision regarding vaccination,” is a side effect of a decades-old “anti-vaxx” movement that has grown increasingly popular in recent years (Journal of Pediatrics).
“Anti-vaxxers” are not vaccine hesitant, they are anti-vaccine, and while they make up a relatively small percentage of the population, their movement has yielded nefarious side effects. Their instillment of doubt in vaccines much like a pandemic itself, some diseases that had been globally eradicated are resurfacing around the world.
Vaccine preventable measles deaths rose to their highest level in decades last year, reflecting a dearth of measles vaccinations (NYTimes). The World Health Organization even listed vaccine hesitancy among the top 10 health threats to global health last year, long before the coronavirus pandemic began (The Guardian).
A Covid-19 vaccine could be civilization’s key to achieving a post-coronavirus era. If researchers find a vaccine effective enough to prevent transmission between individuals, and if enough people get vaccinated, we have the potential to achieve herd immunity and eradicate the virus.
However, herd immunity requires that 95% of the population is vaccinated in order to work. A recent poll found that only “half of Americans would get a Covid-19 vaccine,” and with numbers like that, herd immunity becomes impossible (AP).
According to Dr. Henry Wu, an associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, “You can have a 100% effective vaccine, but if only 30% of the people take it it doesn’t accomplish a lot.” He urges vaccine education, as well as a fight against vaccine misinformation (CNN).
Facebook’s fight against vaccine misinformation
A great deal of the spread of anti-vaxx rhetoric can be traced back to Facebook and similar platforms for forum-based discussion. Facebook banned anti-vaccine ads in October, but related content still exists on the social media platform.
In speaking with a founding member of one anti-vaxx group on Facebook, I learned that the group specifically avoids key terms targeted by Facebook’s algorithm, out of “concern with the growing levels of censorship” on the platform.
Facebook’s ban of anti-vaccine ads does not extend to anti-vaccine user-generated content in private Facebook groups (NYTimes).
Researchers have also proposed ideas to increase vaccine uptake. Mandatory vaccination is certainly an option, but as Julian Savulescu, PhD, of University of Oxford in England points out, this option introduces a host of ethical and practical dilemmas.
He believes vaccination rates could increase with proper compensation. There has been talk of monetary compensation for those who get vaccinated, but Savulescu acknowledges that cash payment could backfire, creating “unwarranted suspicion.” Another proposal, “immunity passports,” would offer greater freedom of travel to those who get vaccinated (Med Page Today).
Savulescu explains, “As long as we are accurate in conveying the limitations in our confidence about the risks and benefits of a vaccine, then it is up to individuals to judge whether they are worth payment.”