On 8 December 2020 in Coventry, UK, Margaret Keenan, 90, was the first person in Europe to receive a dose of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the first Covid vaccine approved in the West since the trial (the vaccine Moderna has just been approved across the continent and Oxford / AstraZeneca is still awaiting clearance). Finally a glimmer of hope: perhaps we can see the end of the worst pandemic of the last hundred years.
By vaccinating at least the 70% of a nation’s population could achieve the much-desired “herd immunity”, and hope to return to a slightly more normal life. But despite both Pfizer and Moderna claiming that their vaccines are as effective as 95% without serious adverse effects, the recent survey of Ipsos-World Economic Forum notes that vaccine confidence is declining in many countries, especially South Africa, Russia and France, where only 40% of respondents said they intend to get vaccinated.
Margaret Keenan, 90, applauded by the staff as she returns to her ward. She was the first person in the UK and across Europe to receive the Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine at Coventry University Hospital, 8 December 2020
The opposite attitude is instead recorded in China, where 80% (the highest percentage in the world) of the population wants to get vaccinated, while the intention to resort to prophylaxis has risen to 77 and 69%, respectively in the United Kingdom and in the United States, countries where the vaccine has been administered, underlining the need for global spread.
Why are so many people not sure they want to get vaccinated?
The tumultuous year we have lived has been fertile ground for the most varied conspiracy theories. From the most bizarre legends according to which 5G mobile phone networks are the cause of Covid-19 to the obviously unfounded accusations to the expert American immunologist Anthony Fauci of having enriched himself thanks to the virus; from worries for a vaccine that was developed, unprecedentedly, in just 10 months, when it usually takes at least 10 years, to those who argue that the mRNA technology used to make the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine can modify human DNA (It’s not absolutely true).
“There is deep distrust of governments right now,” says Heidi J Larson, professor of anthropology and director of Vaccine Confidence Project to London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “In the news landscape, news comes out that shouldn’t have come out, and people are starting to think: who can I trust? And he begins to build his own opinions, and surround himself with people who have similar perceptions ”.
As Larson explains in his book Stuck: How Vaccine Rumors Start – and Why They Don’t Go Away (Oxford University Press, July 2020) reluctance and refusal to get vaccinated is nothing new, and one of the first examples in history was the protests against compulsory vaccination against smallpox in Britain in the 19th century. But vaccine skepticism is largely rooted in a study by 1998, later denied and withdrawn, by Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who claimed the existence of a correlation between the administration of the trivalent MMR vaccine and autism. (Wakefield was later judged guilty of unscientific conduct and disqualified from the register of doctors in 2010.)
Larson points out that deciding to get a vaccine is a complex one, influenced by a whole series of intertwined religious, cultural and philosophical factors. And he argues that the term ‘no vax’ is too polarized, since a much larger slice of the population is not opposed, but “hesitant”, and wonders about the safety of the vaccine and how it is used. “My main mission is to try to depolarize opinions and create a space for debate,” he says. “We have to rebuild the relationship with people, we have taken it for granted for too long. Trust is not rebuilt overnight, but in the meantime it is important to try to reduce the spread of uncontrolled rumors ”.
Social media and no-vax movements
Tackling the problem of disinformation in the age of social media, in which false information goes viral and spreads disruptively on the net, is a very complicated challenge. Three social media giants – Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – perhaps in a belated admission of their responsibility for amplifying these uncontrolled rumors, along with the UK fact-checking organization Full Fact said they wanted to join forces and work with fact-checkers, governments and researchers to address the issue of vaccine misinformation.
What if we could use the enormous influence of social media to promote greater confidence in the vaccine? Larson has high regard for the work of Team Halo, an initiative born last October by a group of researchers and scientists from all over the world to explain what their job is and address issues such as vaccine fear through very short and fun informational videos they post on TikTok, Twitter and Instagram. So far, #teamhalo has garnered more than 32 million views on TikTok (the real star is Dr. Anna Blakney, a 30-year-old bioengineer who had more than 15 million on TikTok). Anna Nolan, one of the founders of Team Halo, says their hope is that these experts “can help people overcome their uncertainties and build consensus in support of vaccines and the extraordinary scientific work that helped create them.”
Another frontline member of Team Halo is Dr. Natália Pasternak, a Brazilian microbiologist and president of the non-profit institution Questão de Ciência (IQC). According to the Vaccine Confidence Project, uncertainty in Brazil has been compounded by President Jair Bolsonaro’s unscientific approach. declared against quarantine, arguing that hydroxychlorichine is a ‘miracle cure‘even if he himself has then contracted Covid-19, all this while he was at the reins of a country with one of the highest coronavirus death rates in the world.
Through newspaper columns, podcasts, interviews and videos on TikTok, Dr. Pasternak is pleading with Brazilians to take the pandemic seriously, and is a strongly critical voice of Bolsonaro. “When bad information comes directly from the federal government, it’s much harder to fight it,” he explains. “People look to the president and the minister of health. And if they say that Covid-19 is little more than a cold, and that there is no need to wear a mask or avoid crowds, people believe them “. A very hard and stressful job, but “every single person who decides to wear a mask and get vaccinated is worth all the efforts made”, says the doctor.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the President elect Joe Biden and the elected vice president Kamala Harris they chose a more responsible approach to the Donald Trump pandemic, and they have vaccinated themselves for cameras to encourage citizens to trust the vaccine, a bit like Elvis Presley when he decided to get vaccinated against polio duringEd Sullivan Show, more than 60 years ago. In Britain, ministers and NHS England have compiled a list of ‘common sense celebrity‘(like Sir Ian McKellen) in hopes of getting the same message across. But the endorsement on the part of a celebrity does not diminish the enormous work that must be done within communities, and indeed Larson recommends a more radical approach at the local level with community leaders.
The key to trusting the vaccine?
Listening to the testimonies of those who have already been vaccinated can be a great motivator. Such as that of Ethan Lindenberger, the 20-year-old from Ohio who in 2018 had begun to support vaccines against the no-vax mother who did not want her son to vaccinate against measles. His story went viral, Ethan spoke before a Senate health committee and starred in a TED Talk on vaccine misinformation which has had over 2 million views. One of the achievements he is most proud of was helping his younger brother to understand: he listened to him, and in 2020 he was vaccinated against measles.
“People recognize themselves in other people, not in data”Says Lindenberger. “If I choose to get vaccinated and talk about it openly in the family, can I be able to convince them more than anyone else? I say yes”. And when we ask him for advice on the best way to talk to relatives and friends still doubtful about the vaccine, Lindenberger says it’s important to use empathy to start a conversation.
A nurse checks pre-filled syringes of Covid-19 vaccine at Howard University Hospital in Washington, DC, December 15, 2020
© Getty Images
“Misinformed people aren’t bad,” he says, “so the focus must be on education. Mine is a loving mom and my biggest supporter, but she was convinced that vaccines could cause impairments in children and that they were a way that the government controlled people, so it attacked me and was confused. I tried to go further. It’s a difficult subject to talk about, but if you know your parents care about your well-being, and want to protect their family, then you can try to talk about it, but don’t feel bad if you see them upset. You have to keep your mind clear ”.
In the end, therefore, we not only need political or celebrity leaders, but also voices like that of Lindenberger or Margaret Keenan, which can help shift the public’s attention by speaking openly and truthfully about their experiences as the largest vaccination program in history progresses.
Keenan said on TV that the vaccine was “the best gift for my next birthday I could ever wish for, because with the new year I will finally be able to spend time with my family and friends after spending most of 2020 alone ”.
And then she turned to the camera with words full of wisdom: “My advice to anyone who has the opportunity to get vaccinated is to do it: if I got vaccinated at 90, then you can too”.
The photo is for illustrative purposes only.