Vaccine refusal is fast becoming as dangerous to human health and to economies as the COVID-19 pandemic.
In 2019, even before the novel coronavirus was confirmed and began its spread around the world, the World Health Organisation (WHO) revealed that vaccine refusals had led to a resurgence of diseases such as measles in countries that were close to eliminating them.
The WHO identified vaccine refusal as one of the 10 leading threats to global health. At that time, complacency, inconvenience in access, and a lack of confidence were said to be the driving factors for people’s refusal to inoculate against disease.
Since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the problem has become worse and so widespread that a comprehensive approach by all governments and non-governmental organisations, globally, is now necessary to overcome it.
Promoted on social media platforms by far-right organisations and church groups in the U.S., the anti-vaccine propaganda has spread like wildfire, convincing persons at all levels of societies that they would either die from an inoculation or some harmful material would be injected into their bodies.
Religious groups in the Caribbean, influenced by fundamentalist U.S. churches, also encourage their followers not to vaccinate. Research done by the New York Times reported, on April 5, that “among evangelicals in the U.S., Pentecostal and charismatic Christians may be particularly wary of the vaccine, in part because their tradition historically emphasises divine health and miraculous healing in ways that can rival traditional medicine”. Charismatic churches also attract followers in the Caribbean.
The most popular social media platforms used by anti-vaxxers are Facebook, Twitter and Instagram which have all committed to banning anti-vaccine content. But, accounts on these platforms turn up as quickly as they are taken-down. In turn, the propaganda, which includes fabricated videos purporting to show actual events, are communicated tens of thousands of times around the world on WhatsApp.
Governments and social media platforms, such as those named in this commentary, as well as organisations such as the WHO and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), must gather specialists together to find ways to counter the anti-vaccination propaganda campaigns and to strengthen educational progammes showing the benefit of vaccines.
PAHO has started using Facebook to educate about the benefits of vaccines, but more effective communication techniques should be used, including dropping huge images of syringes and needles, that may be reinforcing reticence to inoculate.
Groups of persons in many parts of the world, who decline taking the COVID-19 vaccine, now pose a risk to themselves and the people with whom they come into contact, especially their families. They also pose a risk to the opening-up of the economies of their countries.
Data, gathered worldwide, shows that the claims of the anti-vaxxers, concerning detrimental effects of the vaccine, are wrong. Figures confirm that the COVID-19 vaccine prevents severe infection and deaths at astounding rates.
Studies show that, in Israel for instance, vaccines prevented hospitalisation among adults 65 and older by 94%. They also prevented symptomatic infection among health-care workers by 97% and blocked severe disease by 97.4% in Qatar.
Dr. Monica Gandhi, an Infectious-Diseases Specialist, and Professor of Medicine at The University of California at San Francisco, reports that serious infections among vaccinated individuals are extremely rare. She points out that “of over 115 million vaccinated Americans, only 0.0009% contracted severe COVID-19 after vaccination despite the virus continuing to circulate in their communities.
As she concluded: “Vaccines truly defang the virus”. In the U.S. and Britain where (at the time of writing on 20 May) 48.09% and 55.49% of the populations have been vaccinated, data shows that vaccines also block transmission.
People, who have been inoculated against the coronavirus, are rightly concerned that, despite their responsible action in taking the vaccine, irresponsible persons are asserting their right to refuse it. The question that has to be asked is: whose rights are greater? Are the rights to safeguard lives and livelihood less than the right to put lives and livelihoods at risk by refusing to be vaccinated? This is not a moral dilemma; it is a common sense question, deserving a common sense answer.
However, no answer is being attempted as individual governments and their health authorities shy away from the question for political reasons. No ruling political party wants to risk losing electoral support to its rivals on the back of an accusation of depriving people of their rights. Yet, when that right is upheld, it threatens others and entire societies.
Just as measles has returned in countries where groups of people decline to be inoculated against it, COVID-19 will not be subdued or eliminated in countries where groups of people refuse to be vaccinated.
This conflict must be tackled and resolved by global agreement and action. No one country can act alone. Maybe the answer lies in an intense education programme globally constructed, financed, and implemented.
The mantra that “we’re all in this together” assumes a profound global relevance for maintaining life and sustaining livelihoods. Doing nothing is not a solution. The 74th World Health Assembly being held from May 24 to June 1, is the ideal place to start.
Sir Ronald Sanders is Antigua and Barbuda’s Ambassador to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and Massey College in the University of Toronto. The views expressed are entirely his own