Anti-Vaccination Sentiment in the Face of COVID-19

Illustrated by Annie Liu

As most Americans enter their seventh month of COVID-19-related safety measures, restlessness has given way to overthinking, and the ranks of people who identify as “vaccine hesitant” are growing quickly. This is especially true with regard to the long-promised COVID-19 vaccine. Gallup performed a poll that presented Americans with an alluring hypothetical: immediate access to a free, FDA-approved vaccine. In July, 66 percent of Americans were willing to get vaccinated, but by late September, that number dwindled to 50 percent [10]. That 16 percent decrease represents more than 52 million people.

The world is watching the development of COVID-19 vaccines, but the information is riddled with unanswered questions. A month ago, AstraZeneca, a company leading the pack of potential vaccines, paused its UK trials with little explanation while other countries’ investigations into the same vaccine continued. Researchers fear that secrecy in these uncertain times will further erode public trust in the coming COVID-19 vaccine [2]. 

Vaccines are a cornerstone of modern preventive medicine. Since their discovery, areas where vaccines are readily available have seen greatly decreased incidence rates of diseases like smallpox, malaria and polio [8)]. Because vaccine effectiveness depends heavily on herd immunity to block transmission of infection, it’s important that the number of vaccinated individuals in a population exceeds the herd immunity threshold, which varies by disease [9]. Though opposition to vaccination for spiritual or philosophical reasons has been around since the invention of vaccines, unwillingness to vaccinate and the “anti-vaccination” movement have been growing steadily in recent decades. This time, however, the influence of spiritual and philosophical arguments to become “vaccine hesitant” has been compounded by the media and digital misinformation  [11]. 

The movement has grown so much that in March 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) named “vaccine hesitancy” among ten global health threats they hoped to tackle in 2019 [12]. However, as the possibility of a Covid-19 vaccine looms ever closer, it’s important to remember that the “anti-vax” movement isn’t as homogenous as they seem at first glance. When one thinks of an “anti-vaxxer,” it’s easy to imagine a monolith: affluent, white mothers [7], and while they represent a significant (and vocal) portion of “vaccine hesitant” people, there is a diversity of communities who believe in that vaccination is inherently dangerous [4]. To conquer the potential risk of many Americans refusing a vaccine, efforts must be made to address the unique concerns of all who are part of this group.
Despite the rigorous safety and effectiveness standards that vaccines in the United States are held to before they can be disseminated [5], there are still myriad doubts. Some people oppose vaccination on the grounds of bodily autonomy, fighting mandatory vaccination requirements at any level [11]. Others reject a traditionally paternalistic doctor-patient relationship—in which medical professionals use their expertise to decide and implement care—in favor of one that weighs patient opinion more heavily [3]. While both of these hypothetical positions hold philosophical merit, they both partially stem from lack of accurate, accessible information on the safety of vaccines and their important role in creating herd immunity among a population. Transparency and fact-checking, rather than dismissive rhetoric, are necessary to combat vaccine hesitancy, especially as international efforts are made to rapidly develop a safe, functional COVID-19 vaccine [1, 6].

Edited by Daniel Berkovich
Illustrated by Annie Liu

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