Stop the misinformation about the COIVID-19 vaccine now

In an information vacuum, all kinds of thoughts flourish.

image: WION

Canadians generally favour vaccines but doubts persist. In a recent survey, 15 per cent of Canadians and 20 per cent of Americans said they would not get a COVID-19 vaccine if it were available.

Why would you not get vaccinated against a deadly disease? Let’s count the reasons.

Some of it is simply “needle fear.” A study published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing found that 16 per cent of adult patients avoided the flu shot because of needle fear (Globe and Mail, May 22, 2020).

Then there is the fear from rushing to produce the vaccine. Political pressure is being put on researchers in the U.S. and China to come up with the first COVID-19 vaccine. Will such a vaccine be thoroughly tested for efficacy and long-term side effects?

There is the politics of choice: “Why should I be forced to get a vaccination if I don’t want to?” Well, public health is not a personal choice. In a universal health care system like we have in Canada, we all pay for the careless choices of individuals.

The psychology of “fear transfer” is a factor. Once we have exhausted our fears about the actual virus, fear of the vaccine becomes the greater threat.

In the U.S., presidential election politics are at play. President Trump has whipped up anti-lockdown sentiments in states that are reluctant to open the economy too quickly which would result in more COVID-19 deaths. Anti-lockdown protestors have also been pushing the anti-vaxx message.

Some Canadians are reluctant to have vaccinations too but they are not necessarily anti-vaxxers. They just want more valid information. In the absence of valid information from reliable sources, parents will turn to dubious sources such as those found on Facebook.

Anti-vaxxers tend to be concentrated in private or religious schools, or in home-schooling, and they live in a rural area or a community with a small to medium-sized population.

Another source of reluctance is irrational reasoning. “Why should I get a vaccination for a disease that doesn’t exist?” Of course, the disease, such as measles, has been suppressed because of vaccinations. Without vaccinations, they come back.

More wishful thinking is that: “if enough people are exposed to the COVID-19 virus, they will develop herd immunity and vaccinations won’t be required.” The problem is that we don’t know whether exposure to the virus develops resistance or for how long.

A federal agency, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, has recently funded research into the psychological factors of the pandemic. Researchers will monitor social media for concerns and for conspiracy theories being raised about the pandemic, including those about a future vaccine.

The researchers, Eve Dubé, of Laval University and Steven Taylor of The University of British Columbia argue that rational, science-based messaging about the vaccine needs to begin early, especially at a time when the public is saturated with health information about the pandemic.

“It is important to be pro-active, instead of leaving an empty space for vaccine critics to fill the information void,” said Eve Dubé, “Once the trust in vaccination is weakened, we are vulnerable to crisis.”

Reliable messaging about the COVID-19 vaccine has to start now.

‘No Jab, No Pay,’ not here

Australia has a blunt way of getting parents to vaccinate their children called ““No Jab, No Pay.”

image: Forbes Phoenix

As the name suggests, parents don’t receive welfare payments, tax benefits, and child-care rebates if they don’t vaccinate their children. It can amount to $15,000 annually.

Not only do parents lose payments but unvaccinated children can be barred from daycare and schools during disease outbreaks. Daycares that allow unvaccinated children can be fined up to $30,000.

The exceptions to vaccinations are those children who have some medical condition such compromised immune systems or cancer. These children have a genuine reason not to be vaccinated; and these are the children who can benefit most from everyone else being vaccinated.

Australia has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world. But rates only improved slightly since the ‘No Jab, No Pay’ policy was implemented, from 90 per cent to 93 per cent. The improvement was not entirely because of the threat. A key to their success is a national registry. Health reporter Andre Picard says:

“We should not forget either that, in addition to financial penalties, Australia greatly improved its monitoring of vaccination. Having a register that shows what vaccinations children have – or haven’t – received has contributed greatly to bolstering rates (Globe and Mail, July 9, 2018).”

While it seems effective, it’s not appropriate for Canada. We are similar to Australia in that we are both former British colonies but Australia’s culture is different than Canada’s. Perhaps it’s because they were a former penal colony that the big stick approach is more accepted.

Canada has a hodgepodge of provincial systems with no consistent registry. We need to do better. We now have an immunization rate estimated (because we don’t know) to be 85 per cent. Herd immunity requires rates of 90 to 95 per cent.

There are many excuses for not vaccinating children. One is selfishness. If sufficient numbers of other children are vaccinated, herd immunity protects my child.

These parents don’t remember, or never knew, what it was like when vaccinations didn’t protect against diseases like polio. I do. I remember growing up in Edmonton during the “polio season” when epidemics of the crippling disease raged in the summer and fall. Provincial public health departments tried to quarantine the sick, closed schools, and restricted children from travelling or going to movie theatres. My uncle survived polio but walked with difficulty with the use of a cane and died prematurely because of polio complications.

Another reason is the irrational fear that vaccinations cause disease. While these hard-core anti-vaccination parents receive a lot of press, they only number about two per cent. The other 13 per cent fall into the categories of complacency, those who doubt the necessity of vaccinations, and those who just don’t’ find it convenient to get the vaccinations done.

Convenience is a big factor. Parents don’t get around to vaccinating because it takes time and effort. One-on-one attention is sometimes all it takes, such as an email or phone call reminder.

Canadians need to be encouraged, not bullied into improving or vaccination rate. We need a national registry. Improved rates will provide immunity, not only for their own children but for those vulnerable children who are unable to receive them.