A group of health experts is calling on public- and private-sector health officials and policy makers to do more to counter anti-vaccine activism and sentiment in the U.S. and to persuade Americans of the lifesaving benefits of vaccines against COVID and other diseases.
In a piece published in the medical journal The Lancet, a team of experts at the University of California, Riverside, say that anti-vaccine activism contributed to hesitancy around the COVID vaccine and that there are signs it’s spreading to other vaccines.
“We need to consistently amplify the best science and find the best ways of communicating so that people are hearing it through multiple channels instead of through one or two sources,” said Richard M. Carpiano, lead author on the paper and a public-policy professor at UC Riverside.
“This is a matter of life and death. People don’t always see it that way,” he added. “We’ve forgotten how many people have died, have been sick or continue to get sick from COVID-19 as well as many other vaccine-preventable diseases.”
In the past, anti-vaccine activism primarily targeted parents and school-immunization requirements, but COVID provided activists with a far larger and broader audience, the authors wrote. As the crisis unfolded, they were able to harness discontent over public-safety measures, such as physical distancing, school closures and masks. Activists joined with right-wing groups — and some Christian nationalist pastors — in opposing the vaccines and playing down the severity of the illness.
Once vaccine trials began, activists immediately began to discredit the process and spread mistrust among Americans who were unfamiliar with the clinical-trial system.
“Examples include promoting messaging that tied COVID-19 vaccines to past medical abuses such as the Tuskegee syphilis study when targeting Black communities, or intensifying existing mistrust in health-care and government institutions for Latino people, and fueling concerns of fertility-related COVID-19 vaccine side-effects that resonate with women,” they wrote.
The group proposes three ways to counteract the false narrative. First, recognizing that anti-vaccine activists are networked, they propose developing networked communities that can reach the public at the right time and right place with the right message about vaccines.
Second, they propose getting input from outside the usual public-health agencies. “Countering the array of expanded efforts by anti-vaccine activists and groups or individuals who influence or monetize disinformation efforts necessitates a wide breadth of expertise,” the authors wrote.
Third, they propose using coordinated communities to counter trends in anti-vaccine efforts.
“This action will include separating narratives about liberty from anti-vaccine attitudes and mitigating anti-vaccine activist harassment of public health communicators,” they wrote.
There’s a lot at stake, according to the researchers.
“Without concerted efforts to counter the anti-vaccine movement, the USA faces an ever-growing burden of morbidity and mortality from an increasingly undervaccinated, vaccine-hesitant society,” they concluded.
Other COVID-19 news you should know about:
• New reports on the origins of the pandemic rapidly generate misleading claims about the virus, including outlandish conspiracy theories. This week’s news that the Energy Department had confirmed that a classified report determined “with low confidence” that the virus escaped from a lab and did not jump from an animal to humans is a case in point, according to the Associated Press. Within hours, online mentions of conspiracy theories involving COVID-19 began to rise, with many commenters saying the classified report was proof they were right all along. The report has not been made public, and officials in Washington stressed that a variety of U.S. agencies are not in agreement on the origin. Many scientists believe the likeliest explanation is that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 jumped from animals to humans, possibly at Wuhan’s Huanan market, a scenario backed up by multiple studies and reports. The World Health Organization has said that while an animal origin remains most likely, the possibility of a lab leak must be investigated further before it can be ruled out.
• The World Health Organization is still monitoring seven omicron subvariants, according to its weekly epidemiological update, up from four two weeks ago. The seven are BF.7, BQ.1, BA.2.75, CH.1.1, XBB, XBB.1.5 and XBF. “These variants are being monitored due to their observed transmission advantage relative to other circulating variants and additional amino acid changes that are known or suspected to confer fitness advantage,” the agency wrote. The WHO said more than 4.8 million new COVID cases were reported in the 28-day period through Feb. 26, down 76% from the previous 28-day period. Some 39,000 deaths were reported, down 66%. As usual, it cautioned that reported numbers are underestimates of the true numbers as shown by prevalence surveys.
• Britain’s former health minister denied wrongdoing this week after a newspaper published extracts of private messages he sent in the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, the AP reported. The Daily Telegraph said the exchanges show that then-Health Secretary Matt Hancock ignored scientific advice to test everyone entering nursing homes for COVID-19. Hancock said the WhatsApp messages had been deceptively edited, with key lines omitted to give a “distorted account.” The Telegraph said it obtained 2.3 million words from Isabel Oakeshott, a journalist who helped Hancock write a memoir. Oakeshott, a critic of the stringent lockdowns imposed during the pandemic, defended leaking the messages, saying she had done it to avoid a “whitewash” of the crisis.
Here’s what the numbers say:
The global tally of confirmed COVID-19 cases topped 675.5 million on Friday, while the death toll rose above 6.87 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.
The U.S. leads the world with 103.5 million cases and 1,120,878 fatalities. Johns Hopkins will stop tracking live data on March 10.
The CDC’s tracker shows that 230 million people living in the U.S., equal to 69.3% of the total population, are fully vaccinated, meaning they have had their primary shots.
So far, just 53.74 million Americans, equal to 16.2% of the overall population, have had the updated COVID booster that targets both the original virus and the omicron variants.