While pharmaceutical companies have already managed to produce COVID-19 vaccines in record-breaking time, many people around the world remain vaccine hesitant with experts warning that an “epidemic of information” is delaying the acceptance, and encouraging the refusal, of the vaccine despite its availability.
Vaccines have widely been seen as an answer to the COVID-19 pandemic, and as a route back towards normalcy. However, for vaccines to be sufficiently effective, large portions of the population need to be inoculated. With vaccine hesitancy on the rise, there is a danger that this plan fails.
“There's always two things that you're tracking: the epidemic of information, and the actual epidemic of the pathogen,” said Jessica Rivera, Science Communication Lead at the COVID Tracking Project.
“Vaccines don't save lives, vaccinations do. We need to get the vaccines from inside a vial to inside people,” added Rivera.
The lines between pro- and anti-vaxxers had been drawn even prior to the pandemic, marking a clear misalignment leading up to the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines late last year. Furthermore, with slow rollout, varied distribution, and ever-increasing misinformation about the lifesaving shot, some of the latest polling suggests that people’s faith in the COVID-19 vaccine has declined.
The latest Kantar public opinion poll covering the June-November 2020 period across Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Singapore, the US and the UK, revealed increased hesitancy among the general population to commit to a COVID-19 vaccine.
“As a scientist and science communicator, I've been worried about this because I knew that, on the horizon, there would be a vaccine,” said Rivera. “I knew that if we weren't getting ahead of vaccine communication, that we were going to be in a situation that we're in right now.”
Mixed opinions about the vaccine have made scientists’ credibility in finding a cure quite challenging.
“The politicization of basic principles of science and public health have done a lot of damage,” said Erica W. Austin, Director of the Edward R. Murrow Center for Media and Health Promotion Research and professor at Washington State University.
“Even in high-risk healthcare settings, people have been refusing the vaccine,” he added.
Kantar results suggest that wariness about getting the vaccine is related to confidence in public authorities.
One of the biggest threats regarding the vaccine is the lack of trust and coordination around its distribution, coupled with the possibility of unequal distribution, according to Austin.
“The vaccine is not a panacea,” added Rivera. “It's going to take time to get the coverage where we can drop our shoulders and change some of the public health mitigation efforts. That's part of the issue with vaccine communication.”
Complementing a profusion of anti-vaccine material online, the slow rollout of vaccines is not helping boost public confidence in the lifesaving shot.
Vaccine literacy: The power of information
Misinformation has had a resounding impact on general public opinions on the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Anti-vaccine groups don't represent a majority of the population, but they’re extremely loud and prolific on social media,” added Rivera. “Unfortunately, misinformation on vaccines travel further and faster on social media than any real information.”
Experts agree that effectively addressing and responding to the comments of anti-vaxxers requires a nuanced, community-based approach.
To treat vaccine hesitancy in a monolithic way is flawed, because there is already so much distrust, according to Rivera.
Clear and consistent messaging with accountability is the first step in vaccines gaining trust, according to Austin.
In order to ensure vaccine distribution becomes seamless, experts agree that the overall media and science literacy must become mainstream across global societies.
In the Middle East, international organizations like UNICEF have been assisting government efforts and working on raising awareness about COVID-19 vaccines, especially within vulnerable communities.
“The big focus for us is to push with concrete vaccine awareness [programs] to overcome hesitancies we are increasingly seeing in the region,” said Juliette Touma, UNICEF’s Regional Chief of Communications for Middle East and North Africa.
“We are committed to a hundred and fifteen million people that we have reached with credible information, mostly in Arabic,” added Touma.
“Science is not finished until it's communicated,” concluded Rivera.