Though “Operation Warp Speed” in the United States aims to deliver 300 million Covid-19 vaccinations by January 2021, the nation’s influencers, including health professionals, policymakers, and leaders, “have their work cut out for them in persuading Americans to take advantage” of a vaccine, says Gallop.
That’s because, according to their recent poll, over one-third of the United States will refuse to take the Covid-19 vaccination, when available — even if it were free.
The U.S. isn’t the only country in a race to the inoculation flag. Earlier this month, Vladimir Putin announced that Russia was the first country to approve a vaccine after less than two months of human testing. And on August 24th, China revealed that it had been inoculating high-risk groups since late July.
“It could pretty much kill the acceptance of vaccination if it goes wrong” Jens Spahn, German Health Minister
In response, President Trump expressed disappointment in the FDA, declaring that they need to “focus on speed” on Twitter. Trump has said that a vaccine ready prior to the U.S. November elections “wouldn’t hurt” his reelection chances. But since less than 15 percent of clinical trials are successful, some scientists fear politics may be leading motivations over safety.
As Russia and China bypass rigorous clinical trials, some experts are concerned. “It can be dangerous to start vaccinating millions, if not billions, of people too early because it could pretty much kill the acceptance of vaccination if it goes wrong, so I’m very skeptical about what’s going on in Russia,” said German Health Minister Jens Spahn.
Given the magnitude of unfounded public distrust in a Covid-19 vaccination today, with 35% saying they won’t get the shot once available, it will be even more challenging to overcome vaccination hesitancy should any country’s fast-tracked efforts prove ineffective, unsafe or harmful.
The reasons for vaccination hesitancy
Though there is no federal vaccination mandate, each U.S. state has laws that dictate the proof of administration for school registration. But many states offer some exemptions to parents. In a study published titled “Exploring the Refusal of Vaccines,” Chephra McKee details four categories that parents use to refuse or delay vaccinations for their children: religious reasons, personal beliefs or philosophical reasons, safety concerns, and a desire for more information from health officials.
The study, primarily developed to assist pharmacists and other healthcare providers in educating parents who might refuse vaccines for preventable diseases, was published in the Journal of Pediatric Pharmacology and Therapeutics.
According to the paper, the potentially most significant reason regards the safety of vaccinations, which comes primarily by influence from friends, family, and media- rather than health practitioners. McKee finds that the impact of television, the Internet, friends, or acquaintances carries sufficient weight to be “overwhelming for some parents to sift through, making it difficult for them to make their own well-formed decision.”
These reports raise doubts by sensationalizing a rare incident or edge case of an unforeseen side effect, which ultimately causes some parents to refuse vaccines. In one example, concerns with components of vaccines (such as Thimerosal) and reports that vaccines can cause autism, brain damage, or behavioral problems cause greater concern among parents regarding the safety of shots. But McKee notes that Thimerosal has been removed from those vaccines intended for children under six years of age for over a decade.
Nonetheless, continued accounts “noting these rare occurrences breed fear in the hearts and minds of parents, who overestimate the dangers associated with vaccinations,” says McKee.
“Vaccines do not cause autism. Some people may not like the facts, but they don’t get to change them, even if they are running for President of the United States.” Autism Science Foundation
McKee says that some parents prefer natural immunity over vaccination-based immunity for preventable diseases. Some others use Dr. Google and “express belief” that if a child contracts a preventable disease, it will strengthen their immune system. Or, they believe that a healthy diet is sufficient to decrease the risks of contracting diseases or that if they did, they would be easily treatable.
High profile influencers
Rolling Stone lists 17 Anti-Vaccination Celebrities, including Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carey, Alicia Silverstone, and Bill Maher. Maher publicly opposed the H1N1 shot at the peak of the 2009 epidemic and featured an interview with former Senator (and physician) Bill Frist, saying, “Why would you let [the government] be the ones to stick a disease into your arm? I would never get a swine flu vaccine or any vaccine. I don’t trust the government, especially with my health.”
During the Republican candidate debates in 2015, while on stage with Ben Carson, then GOP candidate Trump said autism had become an epidemic. “Twenty-five years ago, 30 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close,” Trump said. “It has gotten totally out of control.” He then said an employee of his had a child who became autistic shortly after getting vaccinated around age two.
Aside from the rehashed anecdotal story that has never been validated, Trump offered no medical or scientific proof to back claims that dosage was correlated to adverse effects, such as autism. “I am totally in favor of vaccines, but I want smaller doses over time,” Dr. Trump said. “Same exact amount, but you take this little beautiful baby, and you pump — I mean, it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, [gesturing with his hands an exaggerated needle size] not for a child, and we’ve had so many instances, people that work for me.”
Public figures influence opinion
Though possible to shrug off as provocative sound bites, the social media missives by national influencers can be “dangerous to public health,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
“Claims that vaccines are linked to autism, or are unsafe when administered according to the recommended schedule, have been disproven by a robust body of medical literature,” said AAP Executive Director Dr. Karen Remley in response to the Carson/Trump exchange.
The Autism Science Foundation pointed to the recent California outbreak of measles, which infected at least 125 people, as one possible result of spreading misinformation on vaccines.
“The facts are clear. Vaccines do not cause autism,” Alison Singer, president and co-founder of the Autism Science Foundation, said in a statement. “Some people may not like the facts, but they don’t get to change them, even if they are running for President of the United States.”
Dubious of the sway public figures have influencing public opinion? Consider this: for several years leading up to 2015, the rate of vaccinations in the United States had been increasing overall, according to a CDC report. Despite a small dip in 2012, for the selected vaccinations tracked (DTP, Polio, Hepatitis, Rotavirus, Measles, Hib, Hepatitis A& B, Varicella, and PCV), the average vaccination administration had been increasing by a rate of 1.8 percentage points overall.
Then, in 2016, nearly all vaccinations were down by almost one full percentage point (.99). The majority have continued to trend downwards the next year, with 2017 figures at or near 2013 vaccination rates.
For example, the Hib vaccine, which has been consistently on the rise for the past seven years, dipped from a high of 82.7% in 2015 to 81.8% in 2016. The decline continued in the following year with 80.7% vaccine administration, which was lower than the rate in 2012.
McKee’s paper cites a CDC source noting states that are more lenient in allowing parents to opt-out of vaccinations also have more exemptions granted. Downstream, those exemptions can lead to higher incidents of preventable diseases. One study found that counties in New York with a higher exemption rate also experienced an increase in reported pertussis cases (also known as whooping cough).
The mass rollout Russia’s vaccination program, to be called “Sputnik V,” is expected to begin in October. Though Putin and other officials have said it will be completely safe, any adverse effects of rushing their program to market may sow new seeds of public doubt globally. Those opposed to vaccinations will likely seize upon a sensationalized story to bolster arguments against the shot.
Indeed, this is already an uphill battle, given the increase in reluctance in vaccinations for preventable diseases in less than one year in the U.S. In another Gallop poll (cited by Reuters) taken in 2019, 84 percent of Americans said they felt it was important (in general) for children to get vaccinated.
The stark 19 point drop to 65% saying they would accept the COVID vaccine, means public officials have their work cut out for them. As schools struggle to contend with reopening strategies, soliciting public acceptance for the eventual vaccine may rest upon their shoulders as they add COVID to their roster of required immunizations.