Anti-vaxxers could hinder the fight to achieve herd immunity against COVID-19 while putting others at risk, health experts in the United Arab Emirates have warned.
The global 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, rubella and autism.
In the UAE, doctors say the myths people believe about the safety of vaccines undermine the country’s huge effort to inoculate the nation.
Dr Gunjan Mahajan, specialist clinical pathologist at Burjeel Hospital, Dubai, blamed false information circulating on the social media platforms about potential side-effects of vaccines.
He told Al Arabiya English: “There is so much misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines being disseminated,” adding that “some believe that vaccines can cause all kinds of major side effects, from infertility to alter your genetics permanently.”
Mahajan also said that some people link a person’s untimely death to the fact that they recently received a COVID-19 vaccine.
“(Some) parents also cite many medical risks, like autism, as potential consequences of being vaccinated. Some believes that vaccines overwhelm the infant immune system, and that natural immunization is better than vaccination and that vaccines themselves contain toxins or actually give you the disease.”
Others believe that pharmaceutical companies only want to sell their products, regardless of the impact on the people who use them, said the doctor.
“None of these myths are true or have any scientific evidence to support them; therefore, they should be ignored.”
Spread of misinformation
Dr Mahajan said there is also concern that COVID-19 vaccines were rushed and that could have jeopardized their safety.
“But these concerns are not valid,” he said. “The coronavirus vaccines do have side effects — but that doesn’t mean they’re harmful, it means they’re working.”
“Short-term side effects can occur within 24 to 48 hours, especially after the second dose, including fever, fatigue, headaches, and joint pain. They simply mean that your body’s immune response has been triggered to fight COVID-19 infection in the future.”
“In contrast to the hyped-up concerns about what the COVID-19 vaccine might do, we have indisputable evidence about the harm that the virus itself really does.”
Before COVID-19 vaccines were developed, online anti-vaccination groups spread coronavirus conspiracy theories. Oregonians for Healthcare Choice, one of many vaccine skeptic Facebook groups across the US, wrote on March 20, 2020: “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 skeptics in recent years led the World Health Organization to declare vaccine hesitation in its top ten threats to global health in 2019.
Experts say that ‘herd immunity’ — where enough of a population is protected from the disease by a vaccine or having already recovered from the virus — is essential to stop the spread of COVID-19. To achieve this, vaccination levels need to be above 90 percent, according to the WHO.
The UAE is leading the world’s vaccination rate. More than 80 percent of the population of around 10 million has received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, while 72 percent have been fully vaccinated, according to figures from the National Crisis and Emergency Management Authority (NCEMA).
Dr Mahajan said as vaccination campaigns continue rolling out around the UAE, all groups of people should be vaccinated to attain the goal of herd immunity.
“Staying away and not taking the vaccine will increase the risk of infection for the individual - it is also detrimental to the community,” he said. “It is our responsibility as a society not to believe misinformation so that we can fight this virus together.”
Dr. Sawsan Humaida, a specialist in internal medicine at Bareen International Hospital in the UAE’s MBZ City, also urged everyone to get vaccinated.
“The current goal is for UAE to have 100 percent vaccinated population, to achieve herd immunity and avoid unnecessary morbidity and mortality.”
“Vaccination against COVID-19 is extremely important to ensure the safety of our community and reduce the virus infection rate throughout the country.”
“While observing the precautionary measures put in place by the health authorities is still of high priority, every individual has a responsibility to take additional preventative measure for their own and their families’ safety.”
“Therefore, any false misconceptions regarding the vaccine should be disregarded to ensure the nation reaches a high vaccinated population rate.”