As countries mull easing restrictions and opening up economies, the race against time to find a vaccine has heated up. Currently, more than 100 vaccines are under development while around 10 are in the human trial phase.
However, while the world is waiting for a vaccine, there is a growing number of people who oppose what may be one of the only ways to counter the virus. These anti-vaccination campaigners, who believe that the side effects of vaccinations outweigh any benefits, have been gaining ground this pandemic and using various anti-lockdown protests as platforms to propagate their movement.
As per a survey by the UK-based Wellcome Global Monitor, people from high-income countries have the least confidence in vaccines – in western Europe, 22 per cent surveyed did not trust vaccines while France has the highest amount of distrust in vaccines. This is as opposed to 8 out of 10 people in countries like India.
Even celebrities are not immune to the anti-vaxx belief. Tennis player Novak Djokovic, actors Jessica Biel and Jim Carrey and singer Toni Braxton are among those who believe that vaccines cause more harm than good.
What the anti-vaxx campaigners say
A team from the George Washington University has been studying the anti-vaxx campaigners’ efforts to undermine the attempt to develop a vaccine. Researchers are worried that if more people join the movement, it could affect the work being done to bring in herd immunity to the virus through a vaccine.
A prime reason for this is that, despite not being a majority, the campaigners are making their voices heard. The study has revealed that while there are fewer anti-vaxx groups on social media, they are more linked to during discussions on vaccinations.
Also, there are more anti-vaxx groups than pro-vaccination groups on various social media platforms. Anti-vaxx campaigners also appeal the emotional side of parents, by telling them that vaccines could harm their children.
Anti-vaxx campaigners believe that the natural immunity provided by the body is a better mechanism than relying on vaccinations. There is also a belief that through vaccines, scientists and pharmaceutical companies are trying to make money and sell products that could cause harm.
This pandemic has also given rise to claims such as those that say that coronavirus vaccines are being used to implant microchips into people and that a woman who took part in a vaccine trial died in the United Kingdom.
Billionaire philanthropist and entrepreneur Bill Gates and his foundation have also been at the receiving end of the campaigners’ fury for funding research on developing a vaccine.
A rather bizarre conspiracy theory doing the rounds, especially in Germany which has seen large scale demonstrations, is that the virus and a vaccination programme are the government’s cover to plant computer chips into people to control them.
Anti-vaxxers also blame vaccinations for causing conditions such as autism and diabetes in children – a theory which started doing the rounds in 1998 when British researchers published a report in The Lancet claiming that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine caused autism. This was on the basis of a study conducted on 12 children.
However, further studies were unable to prove any link and the study was subsequently retracted. It was also found that the lead researcher had been paid more than half a million pounds by a lawyer who wanted to establish a link between vaccines and autism.
The push for a vaccination
Vaccines work by training the body to fight a disease without exposing it to the symptoms of the disease. Vaccines are made up of dead or weakened antigens, which then triggers the body to produce antibodies to fight the disease. These antibodies destroy the antigens and remain in the body, thereby giving you immunity to the disease, if you are ever exposed to it.
Contrary to what anti-vaxx campaigners claim, vaccinations are not a new concept designed to harm humankind. Instead, the practice of immunisation is said to have originated as early as 1000 BC in China where smallpox scabs were ground up and added back into the recipient’s nostril or scratched into their skins in a practice called variolation.
People were found to become immune to the disease after getting variolated. This slowly spread to Africa, Turkey, Europe and the Americas. The practice was, however, not without risk, as around 1-2 per cent died after the process.
A more successful vaccine was introduced in 1796 when English physician Edward Jenner used a method whereby he took substance from a person’s blister who was infected with cowpox and injected it onto another person.
Through subsequent testing, he was able to prove that the vaccine could bring immunity to smallpox. Over the next couple of centuries, the vaccine was worked upon and developed until smallpox – a disease which had a fatality rate of 30 per cent, was eradicated.
Louis Pasteur’s vaccine against rabies in 1885 and other vaccines against diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis and polio, measles, mumps and rubella and hepatitis B have helped control a large number of highly infectious diseases.
Vaccines are, thus, considered to be amongst the world’s most successful health interventions, which has saved as much as 3 million lives every year, as per the World Health Organisation (WHO). Which is what makes this growing opposition to inoculation dangerous.
This was proven last year when the once-fringe group of anti-vaxxers contributed to the United States’s worst measles outbreak in a generation. While the disease had been declared eliminated in 2000, health officials blamed the increasing resistance that parents have to vaccinate their children as a reason behind the resurgence of the disease.
Similarly, in Europe, measles cases reached a record high in 2018, spurred by resistance to immunisation.
A hesitation towards the COVID-19 vaccine is understandable - the fear of the needle is combined with the fact that the disease is a new one and any vaccine that is under development would need to quell safety concerns.
A large part of this fear can thus be addressed by ensuring that the process of developing the vaccine is transparent and that public communications address safety concerns regarding the vaccine.