The Post-Truth Era Has Fueled COVID-19 Vaccine Hesitancy
“Our public debate seems increasingly driven by what people want to be true rather than what is actually true. As a scientist, that worries me.”
- Johan Bollen, PhD, professor of informatics, Indiana University
“If I die, I die.”
- Kirk Cousins, Minnesota Vikings quarterback, reflecting on possibility of contracting COVID-19
Vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 became available in December 2020. Health professionals had predicted that vaccine hesitancy would be a major problem. Unfortunately, they were right. Few, if any issues, related to strategies for stopping the COVID-19 pandemic have proved as difficult for me to understand as vaccine hesitancy. I am baffled.
Vaccines are medical miracles. But in order for them to work, one must be vaccinated. In this Germ Gems post, I again provide information about vaccines in a further attempt to combat the misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines that abounds in our “Post-Truth” era.
The anti-vaccine movement is not new. Vaccine hesitancy is a problem as old as vaccines themselves. In his article “Vaccination, Religion, and Science: An Astonishing 300-Year-Old Story,” published in Medpage Today, Milton Parker, M.D., underscores this point by drawing comparisons between the anti-vaccination movements in the smallpox era (a viral infection that prior to being eradicated in 1980 killed more people than all wars in history combined) and the current COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Parker comments: “In both epidemics, fear and misinformation were rampant; there were sharp divisions regarding the role of inoculation in the prevention of serious viral disease; and the discourse yielded highly polarized and politicized viewpoints (replete with accusations of racism) that often degenerated into personal attacks.”
The loss of rationality in language in the “Post-Truth era.” Superficial analysis of the age-old history of vaccines and parallel anti-vaccination campaigns suggests “there’s nothing new under the sun.” In his article “‘Post-Truth Era’ Complicates COVID-19 Response, Trust in Science,” appearing January 21, 2022 in WebMD, author and journalist, Nick Tate provides insight into what is “new” in what is called the “Post-Truth Era.”
The use of the term “Post-Truth” can be traced back as far as 1992. But Tate’s use of the term “Post-Truth Era” is based on a fascinating new research study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) in December 2021 titled “The rise and fall of rationality in language.”
Using a sophisticated methodology and a Google data base, the authors of this PNAS publication carried out an in-depth search of the language used in books published from 1850 to 2019. In doing so, they found a sea-change in how language was used over this time period. They noted a marked shift beginning in 2007 representing/related to the decline in fact-related words and a concomitant increase in emotion-laden language. At the same time, they observed a reduction in words reflecting a “collectivistic” versus an “individualistic” perspective. The embrace of “alternative facts” (falsehoods over facts) coincided with the rise of the social media aspects of the Internet and the emergence of Internet-fueled conspiracy theories.
Mr. Tate suggests that the findings in the PNAS paper underscore “the need for doctors and scientists to do a better job of communicating about COVID-19 and other pressing issues.” Rupali Limaye, Ph.D., a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health researcher, shares Tate’s perspective. Limaye is particularly concerned about the rise in conspiracy theories that has led to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. She suggests, “The comments we used to hear were much more related to vaccine safety. [People] would say, ‘I’m worried about an ingredient in the vaccine’ or ‘I’m worried that my kiddo has to get three shots within 6 months to have a series dose completed.’ But now, a lot of comments they receive are about government and pharma conspiracies.”
Vaccines benefit human health. Nothing in the history of medical science has contributed more to human health than the development of vaccines. Through the years, vaccines have become increasingly safe and effective. Yet, anti-vaccine movements in the U.S. have led to a decline in vaccination rates and the reemergence of diseases such as measles that were once considered eliminated.
The World Health Organization estimates that vaccination prevents 2-3 million deaths each year. In the May 22, 2019 article “Vaccines Save Lives,” Chris Regal reports that in the U.S. alone, “approximately 42,000 of the 4.1 million children born each year would die early deaths as a result of diseases that could be prevented by vaccines.” In a study titled “Estimating the health impact of vaccination against ten pathogens in 98 low-income and middle-income countries from 2000 to 2030: a modelling study” published in the January 30, 2021 issue of the Lancet, researchers found that routine vaccinations saved 37 million lives, mostly those of children, over the past two decades.
The COVID-19 vaccines also have saved many lives. The pandemic has hit the U.S. hard—causing more than 882,000 deaths to date. According to the Commonwealth Fund article “The U.S. COVID-19 Vaccination Program at One Year: How many Deaths and Hospitalizations Were Averted?”, researchers estimated that without vaccines approximately 1.1 million additional COVID-19 deaths and more than 10.3 million additional hospitalizations would have occurred in the U.S. by November 2021. They also determined that if no one had been vaccinated, “daily deaths from COVID-19 could have jumped to as high as 21,000 per day — about 5 times the level of the record peak of more than 4,000 deaths per day recorded in January 2021.”
Access to truthful information on vaccines as a “human right.” A momentous event occurred on January 27, 2022 when in a speech to the International Catholic Media Consortium on COVID-19 vaccines, Pope Francis identified access to information based on scientific facts as a human right. As Pope Francis said, “To be properly informed, to be helped to understand situations based on scientific data and not fake news, is a human right.”
Misinformation on social media and mistrust of governments contribute increasingly to vaccine hesitancy throughout the world—including in low-and middle-income countries. There are, however, numerous reliable sources that dispel the myths and debunk the disinformation that abounds about COVID-19 vaccines. If you are a Germ Gems reader who is still hesitant about getting vaccinated, exercise your right to be properly informed. Learn more about the COVID-19 vaccines from a reliable website such as one hosted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On January 27, 2021, another important milestone was also reached—10 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines had been administered globally. This is an extraordinary achievement considering that vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 had only become available a little over a year earlier. But as Madhukar Pai, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics as McGill University, stated: “Ten billion doses is a triumph of science but a complete failure of global solidarity.” Dr. Pai was referring to the fact that more than one third of the world’s people, many of them in Africa, are still waiting for a first dose.
In the U.S., we are fortunate to have access to three highly safe, effective, and readily available COVID-19 vaccines. Yet, 63 million eligible Americans remain totally unvaccinated. Equally important, 85 million eligible Americans have not received their booster despite evidence showing that booster shots significantly increase protection against severe disease caused by both the delta and omicron variants. If you haven’t already done so, get vaccinated! And if you haven’t had a booster, get it! There is a cost to your hesitancy…a human life…maybe even your own.