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Infectious Diseases

01 May 2020

Coronavirus pandemic causing some anti-vaxxers to think differently

With infection cases having reached more than 3 million worldwide, the virus seems to have changed the views of some anti-vaxxers who usually stand their ground against vaccinations.

Vaccines associated with multiple infectious viral diseases, such as influenza (flu), measles, pneumonia and polio, have saved millions of lives in preventing sickness, disability and death. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) considers immunisation to be “one of modern medicine's greatest success stories”.

And, according to CNN, many people who were part of the anti-vaccine movement and strongly took a stand against mandatory vaccines, are now slowly changing their minds. This is in light of the coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 3.2 million people and claimed the lives of over 228 000 worldwide, indicates the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Centre.

Vaccine development over the years

Vaccines have come a long way since 1796, the first of which was developed by Edward Jenner against smallpox. Since then, scientific research has saved millions of lives with the development of vaccines against various infectious diseases worldwide. 

However, because scientists cannot prove that vaccines are 100% safe, anti-vaxxers believe we shouldn’t use them at all. This is known as the "perfectionist fallacy", and experts caution that this viewpoint is dangerous and prevents herd immunity from happening, which ultimately helps to stop the disease from spreading.

But health sectors and organisations such as WHO have debunked the misconceptions around vaccines many times, hoping that "vaccine hesitancy", which is one of the top 10 threats to global health, will change.

Immunisation, one of the most cost-effective public health interventions, currently prevents two to three million deaths across all age groups every year, notes WHO. Thanks to a vaccination against measles, for example, which can result in serious disability, infections or death, global measles deaths have decreased by 73% – figures from WHO indicate a decrease from an estimated 536 000 deaths in 2000 to 142 000 in 2018.

While this is remarkable, they add that if global vaccination coverage improves, an additional, whopping 1.5 million deaths could be avoided.

Coronavirus and anti-vaxxers

According to the CNN article, which includes opinions from several anti-vaxxers, there were a few reasons for their change of mind. Among them, the high coronavirus infection rate, as well as understanding of how rigorous vaccine trials are.

A former anti-vaxxer, Haley Searcy, 26, from Florida, told CNN she was “just as scared of vaccines as I was of the diseases they protect against", but that, "since Covid-19, I've seen first-hand what these diseases can do when they're not being fought with vaccines". She added that she’s also “learned just how rigorous vaccine trials are before they're made available to the public”, which has also helped change her mind.

Vaccine Confidence Project (VCP), a research group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s director, Heidi Larson, told CNN that public awareness of Covid-19 has caused the perception of the seriousness of the disease to grow, and may have provoked people to rethink their previously held beliefs on vaccines. However, Larson added that many people are still mistrustful of a potential Covid-19 vaccine.

A new study by Texas Tech University researchers, published in the journal Vaccine, found that vaccine sceptics actually think differently. The study included 158 participants who were surveyed about their level of vaccine scepticism, and concluded that anti-vaxxers often “overestimate the likelihood of negative events, particularly those that are rare”. The researchers also found no link between participants’ education level and their vaccine scepticism.

Vaccine development

WHO notes that no vaccine and no specific antiviral medicines against Covid-19 are available yet, but that possible vaccines and some specific drug treatments are currently under investigation and being tested through clinical trials. 

A recent Health24 article indicates that a fourth clinical trial for the new coronavirus has started and will be conducted in 200 healthy people in Germany. Three other vaccine trials are also in development. 

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