The seventh wave of COVID-19 is leaving Europe and the United States with a very high balance in terms of sickness and death. Currently, in the northern country, despite having sufficient vaccines, only 67% of the population received a complete scheme and less than half have accessed booster doses. Hence, more than four hundred deaths are recorded every day. How has this been possible? The answer is complex, but without a doubt, one of the causes is the existence of a vigorous anti-vaccine movement that opposes the use of this effective health tool.
Although the invention of vaccines is attributed to Dr. Edward Jenner, Asians had developed “variolization” centuries earlier. This technique consisted of inoculating non-sick individuals with fresh material obtained from the lesions of a person with smallpox. Jenner himself is said to have been favored with her. It is important to remember that at the end of the 18th century, about 400,000 people died from this cause in Europe alone, and almost a third of the survivors were left blind and with horrible scars. From the experience gained after inoculating the son of one of his employees, Jenner sent in 1797 a report to the Royal Society of Sciences in England, which was rejected, then published and circulated another report at his own expense. This time the result was different and a few years later, at the beginning of the 19th century, vaccination had spread throughout Europe, only to become global a decade later, giving its creator universal fame.
However, opposition to the new discovery was also strong. For some people the method was “unhealthy” and “unchristian” because it used material from “inferior creatures”. Others objected, not being satisfied with being told “what was best for them.” Throughout the 20th century, vaccines had to come under attack from those who opposed their use. These received a strong boost in 1998, with the publication of a controversial article in The Lancet journal, in which a causal relationship was established between the triple viral vaccine — in Cuba it was known as PRS —, and certain autistic behaviors and intestinal inflammations serious in children. It was later learned that the conclusions were false and hid conflicts of interest, since the author intended to promote his own vaccines. However, part of society received those hypotheses as absolute truths, which triggered a drop in the vaccination rate around the world and the reappearance of measles outbreaks in England, where it had been eradicated for years.
The arrival of COVID-19 reactivated the debate and made the No Vax movement gain strength around the world. However, the virus is indifferent to the opinions of its victims and several prominent spokespersons who have suffered the consequences of their own ideas. Such is the case of Johann Biasiscs, the leader of this movement in Austria, or that of the evangelical preacher Marcus Lamb, a well-known televangelist, owner of more than seventy television stations, who affirmed that the coronavirus vaccine “was not really a vaccine” and that people died or had neurological disorders because of it, in addition to qualifying the mandatory vaccination mandate as “a sin against the Holy Word of God.” His son went so far as to affirm that his father’s COVID-19 diagnosis had been a “spiritual attack from the enemy.”
As contradictory as it may seem, the success of these people against vaccines is also the result of the tremendous effectiveness of these, which save up to three million children each year. The eradication of smallpox, for example, prevented 350 million infected people and 40 million deaths in forty years, almost four times the population of Cuba. This also meant significant economic savings estimated at billions of dollars. However, the perception of risk has become null, which has made it possible for many people to fear the disease less than the vaccination itself.
The adverse effects argument is another one used by individuals such as Dick Farrell, a radio host who suffered from COVID-19, who used to say that vaccines were “poison,” referring to their undesirable effects. This is unfounded from a scientific point of view. If we look at the example of measles, for every million unvaccinated and infected children, we would have 300,000 cases of complications, including 2,000 deaths. Whereas for every million children vaccinated, 34 major adverse reactions would be expected, the majority of which would be the occurrence of thrombocytopenia, which is the transient decrease in the number of platelets with only one case of significant allergic reaction and less than one case of encephalitis or inflammation of the brain.
Another “argument” of the No Vax movement is the one that maintains that pharmaceutical companies and governments put economic and political interests ahead of people’s safety. Although not everything is rosy, the production of vaccines requires million-dollar investments and they are administered to healthy people. Therefore, the benefit must be greater than the risk of producing adverse reactions or the economic and political damage could be irreparable.
Now, why do individuals like Biasiscs, Land or Farrer manage to influence public opinion over much more qualified voices? This is due to “scientific disrepute,” which is reinforced by two interesting social phenomena: “motivated reasoning” and “the Dunning-Kruger effect.” Motivated reasoning is that a group of people with an erroneous belief—for example, that vaccines cause more harm than good —tend to regard facts — and voices — that argue for their ideas as more reliable. On the other hand, the Dunning-Kruger effect describes how people with less knowledge believe they are more capable of evaluating scientific information than the experts themselves. To give an idea of the magnitude of the problem, in some studies they reach 30% of those surveyed.
Finally, the new communication technologies have been an important ally of the No-Vax movement, serving as platforms for the amplification of these ideas. A close example was that of the Cuban vaccines against COVID-19, which suffered all kinds of questioning on internet social networks. The foregoing leads me to think that, although the refusal to be vaccinated is not yet a problem in our environment, the continuous increase in access to new communication technologies and the changes that are taking place in Cuban society, in the future this phenomenon could become a problem, as in Ukraine, where the arrest of one of the movement’s leaders caused massive protests, or in peaceful Costa Rica, where an individual named Marcos Morales Albertazzi broke into a vaccination center in January this year accompanied by several people.
But not everything is unreason and fanaticism, the leader of the No Vax movement in Italy, Lorenzo Damiano, after being saved from the disease last December, declared that he regretted not getting vaccinated and asked the population to “follow science,” and a friend of Dick Farrell, who confirmed his death, said that he had changed his opinion. Examples like these are valuable in fighting this movement. Additionally, the dissemination of quality scientific information is vital, in an accessible language, with total transparency by politicians, pharmaceutical companies and health personnel, which includes reliable databases that are auditable by third parties. Everything created by human beings, even something that brings benefits as wonderful as vaccines, will always generate opposition, but reason must prevail.