By Yvonne Howie
RGN, DipHE (Ad Nsg)(Open), CertHE (Health & Social Care)
The reason we don’t see deadly diseases is because we vaccinate against them. This is why I am staunchly and unashamedly pro-vaccine. So when I think about the technology used to create the Covid-19 vaccines, I would not be far wrong in saying that they are the greatest scientific achievement that I’ll likely see in my lifetime. The ability to develop vaccines in a controlled, artificial environment instead of using the actual virus to create them marks a significant and momentous milestone in medical history.
When scientists set out to develop a vaccine for Covid-19, they hoped to create one that would be at least 50% effective. Astonishingly, they got 93.1% – 95%. These extraordinary vaccines were born out of a relatively new technology which relies on a synthetic strand of genetic code called messenger RNA (mRNA) to effectively prime the immune system ready to fight the virus should we come into contact with it. However, mRNA in itself is not a new invention. In fact it is not an invention at all. It is a molecule that evolved billions of years ago and can be found in every cell of our bodies. Scientists had been studying this technology for decades, but it was the pandemic which unexpectedly served as the catalyst for the concept of mRNA vaccines. Then on 8th Dec 2020, 90-year-old Margaret Keenan became the first person outside of the clinical trials to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. Since then 12.9 billion doses have been given safely and have effectively driven down rates of suffering, hospitalisation and death. Experts are now working to dramatically reshape vaccine production as well as revolutionising future treatments for various cancers and infectious diseases using this remarkable technology.
Yet as public health officials drive for optimal uptake of flu and Covid-19 boosters in anticipation of a particularly nasty winter, there is a small but growing number of the population delaying or foregoing vaccines due to a misunderstanding of the safety, effectiveness and necessity of vaccination. And that’s because the Covid-19 crisis has been fertile ground for conspiracy theorists. Of all of them, the anti-vaccine movement is surely the most dangerous to public health. Take the US for instance. Nothing better demonstrates the cavernous political divide in the US than their embarrassing and asinine vaccine uptake during a global pandemic. As of Oct 2022, nearly 33% of parents were hesitant to vaccinating their children against Covid-19.
To put it in a nutshell, poor uptake in certain states has been driven by a mixture of extreme polarisation between left and right leaning voters, political opportunism by politicians and out-and-out misinformation. The American public have been effectively infected by partisanship. Masking, social distancing and receiving the vaccine are solid political statements and scores of Americans have responded with their own political statement: rebellion. Worryingly, the wave of anti-vaccine legislation sweeping the US is now undermining public faith in vaccines. Certain pockets of the population are so politically driven that they now refuse to protect their children against childhood diseases resulting in dozens of measles outbreaks. This is inconceivable in modern society considering measles was declared eradicated in the US in 2000.
They despised being told that their children had to stay home from school but went ballistic when they were made to wear masks so that they could safely return. They were annoyed when trades and industries were forced to shut but were more outraged when asked to wear masks to enable them to open again. They shout about their freedoms but completely disregard the freedoms of their vulnerable population, namely the young, elderly and infirm. Millions have died and continue to die unnecessarily despite a colossal vaccine programme. They will effectively drag Covid behind them like a ball and chain forever because they will never achieve herd immunity. All of this could’ve been avoided if everyone eligible for the vaccine had chosen to trust the science from the PhDs, the virologists and the immunologists with their staggering volume of researched evidence instead of prejudiced self-serving politicians. They are so devoted to their political persuasion that they have lost sight of their fellow human beings. And the anti-vaccine movement have abused this defiance and are profiting from their vulnerability. Understandably there were apprehensions at the start of the vaccine roll out in 2020, but now billions of people worldwide have received the vaccine and very few have had adverse effects. The safety record just grows daily the more vaccines that are administered. Frankly, believing fabrications is a luxury of people who have not had to nurse a dying patient, watch from behind glass or at home on an iPad because Covid-19 procedures prohibited them from comforting their loved ones struggling as they drew their last breath against a virus that suffocated them to death.
If we are to learn anything from this pandemic, it is that misinformation spreads faster and further than fact and those who perpetuate misinformation are disproportionately loud and relentless. Thankfully, vaccine scepticism remains a minority position in the UK where we have a fantastic uptake of protective vaccines. We don’t have a situation like America where people are still dying of lack of knowledge and stubbornness. Vaccine information is not found rummaging in the dark corners of YouTube or listening to conspiracy theorists on Facebook. Listen to the scientists, the doctors and the nurses who follow the advice of scientific experts and read trustworthy news sources. Vaccination is part of life and the most important thing we can do to protect ourselves and our children. It ensures our survival.