The global anti-vaccination movement could cause a resurgence of the deadly coronavirus outbreak and others like it in the years to come, experts have warned.
Laboratories around the world are rushing to create a vaccine that will stop the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Scientists anticipate it will take more than a year to discover and test such a drug.
But public health officials say the growth of the so-called “anti-vax” movement across the world may mean that its usefulness is limited.
“We need a vaccine. However, the vaccine is only effective in preventing the disease if we have appropriate vaccine uptake,” said Dr Scott Ratzan, founder of the International Working Group (IWG) on Vaccination and Public Health Solutions.
“If people do not take the vaccine and we do not have exposure to a level that would have overall community ‘immunity’ we could have a resurgence in cases of Covid-19 or the next coronavirus,” said Dr Ratzan, who is also a distinguished lecturer at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says at least 20 coronavirus vaccines are being developed around the world. The first human trials have already begun in Seattle, led by the Boston-based biotech firm Moderna.
Although the speed with which the drug went to trial is almost unprecedented, experts say it could still take about 18 months for any potential vaccine to become available to the general public.
The anti-vaccination movement has become a growing threat in recent years, credited in part to the publication of a widely debunked 1998 study that linked the vaccine for measles, mumps, and rubella to autism. The movement counts among its number some high-profile celebrities — and at one time, even Donald Trump.
Globally, some 79 percent of people perceive vaccines to be safe, while only 7 percent thought they were unsafe, according to a 2019 study. That number varies across the world, however. France, which has one of the highest number of infections of the coronavirus, is also the most vaccine sceptical country in the world. Some 33 percent of French people believe that vaccines are unsafe. The US also has an above average level of scepticism. Seventy-two percent of Americans believe vaccines to be safe, while 11 percent disagree.
Dr Ratzan’s own polling on the US public’s views on a potential coronavirus vaccine found that only 66 percent would be willing to take a coronavirus vaccine. Just over 11 percent said they would not take it, and 23 percent were unsure. The survey, conducted by Emerson Polling, spoke to more than 1,100 Americans on March 18 and 19.
Experts say that “herd immunity” — whereby enough of a population is protected from the disease by a vaccine or having already recovered the virus — is essential for stopping the spread of the virus. To achieve this, vaccination levels need to be above 90 percent, according to the WHO.
Dr Steven Taylor, a clinical psychologist and author of the 2019 book ‘The Psychology of Pandemics’, said he anticipated the rejection of vaccinations to be a significant issue going forward.
“When we get a vaccine, you can bet that many people will not get vaccinated,” he said. “This is a long-standing, huge problem with pandemics. Even during the 2009 H1n1 influenza pandemic, a lot of people didn’t get vaccinated. Some studies reported 50 percent of people saying they didn’t want to get vaccinated.”
Even before the vaccine has been discovered, online anti-vaccination groups are spreading coronavirus conspiracy theories. Oregonians for Healthcare Choice, one of many vaccine sceptic Facebook groups across the country, wrote on March 20: “If you’re still thinking it’s coincidental that a pandemic erupted in the midst of a state by state sweep to REMOVE your right to refuse vaccination, it’s time to get your head out of the sand.”
The growth of vaccine sceptics in recent years led the WHO to declare vaccine hesitation in its top ten threats to global health in 2019.
“The reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases,” it said.
“Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease – it currently prevents 2-3 million deaths a year, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved.”
The growth of online ecosystems devoted to spreading disinformation about vaccines is a key reason for this, according to Dr Ratzan.
“While anti-vaccine statements date back to the 1800s, more recent sentiments stem from now-debunked evidence regarding the relationship between childhood vaccines and autism,” he said.
“The anti-vaccine activists are organised well and continue to perpetuate the fraudulent Wakefield 1998 Lancet article that purportedly linked autism with vaccination. A growing anti-vaccine movement is aligned with the proliferation of social media platforms that can propagate misinformation –– such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.”
Dr Ratzan said that “vaccine literacy” is essential for improving vaccination rates around the world.
Last year he was one of 50 public health leaders from Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, and the Americas who signed a declaration that advocated for more support for “the development, testing, implementation and evaluation of new, effective, and fact-based communications programmes” on vaccines.