Why the Covid vaccines alone are not enough

We need to campaign for mass vaccination. Here's how.

Man with mask holding vaccine

Victorian England was plagued by the so-called “Dickensian diseases”: cholera, gout, scarlet fever, smallpox, tuberculosis, typhoid and whooping cough. Today, these diseases have been all but banished from the developed world through a combination of improved sanitation, antibiotics and, crucially, vaccination.

Yet discovery of a vaccine was not in itself sufficient to tackle the Dickensian diseases. For example, a vaccine for smallpox was first developed in the 19th century, yet it took until 1953 for smallpox to be eradicated in Europe. Not just a vaccine was needed but also large-scale vaccination.

The first mass vaccination campaigns, carried out in the 1940s, took place before most living memory, but they faced many of the same challenges that the Covid vaccination efforts face: hesitancy, lack of education, outright opposition, misinformation and scare stories. Anti-vaxxers are not only creatures of the social media age. The National Anti-Vaccination League was founded in 1866 and operated to challenge scientific support for vaccines for over a century.  

The Covid vaccine is vital to us recovering from the pandemic. It is estimated the vaccination of those on the priority list could cut Covid deaths and hospitalisations by 99%. That would not only save lives from Covid but relieve the NHS, which is straining under the weight of Covid cases.

And to achieve so call ‘herd immunity’ against Covid, it is thought that a vaccination rate of up to 90% of the population may be needed. While the UK’s vaccination campaign is going well so far, it will take supreme efforts to achieve a high enough level of vaccination to provide herd immunity.

Failure to be vaccinated brings costs not just for those who might catch Covid otherwise, but for wider society that funds health services. Most of all though, under vaccination leads to lives cut short and loved ones lost too soon.

Four principles

Previous vaccination campaigns succeeded through a combination of strong public messaging, often delivered by trusted messengers, from public figures to local health workers. These were combined with strong organisation and efforts to make it as easy as possible to get vaccinated.  These tried and tested approaches, updated for the social media age, should be used to maximise take up of the Covid vaccines.

Our approach to encouraging the take up of Covid vaccines should be based on the following principles. Firstly, people have a right to question the vaccines and should not be treated as stupid or troublesome for doing so.

Secondly, we should counteract misinformation but should be careful not in doing so unwittingly spread lies and conspiracy theories.

Thirdly, everyone has a role to play, whether that government, the social media networks or individuals educating friends and family about the vaccines.

Fourthly, the vaccination campaign needs to be targeted to be best communicate with different groups of people.

The Covid vaccines have been developed at record pace and it is legitimate for the public, as with any medical advance, to question its safety. Clear information and comprehensive explanation and reassurance needs to be provided to the public, such as this video from the University of Oxford explaining how to make vaccine in record time.

We should not pretend that the vaccines have no risks, although they appear to be very low, but explain that the benefits have been assessed by experts as outweighing the risks. Ridiculing people or telling them they are stupid has never been a successful persuasion strategy.

Say no to mythbusting

In contrast to legitimate questioning of the vaccines, there are others who are spreading misinformation about the vaccines. Today’s anti-vaxxers have inherited the mantle of the National Anti-Vaccination League but with the ability to use social media to vastly boost their message.

The natural inclination when faced with misinformation is to want to counteract it with ‘myth busting’. Yet this can actually help to fan the flames of the misinformation as a result of the myth busting actually raising awareness of the myths.

An example is this tweet from the English NHS which says “you cannot catch coronavirus from the COVID-19 vaccine” and risks spreading the myth that you can catch Covid from the vaccine, rather than combatting it.

The Center for Countering Online Hate has developed practical guidance on how to deal with misinformation, advising against sharing or quoting misinformation, and instead focussing on sharing official advice.

In the words of Antonia Bance, Head of Communications and Campaigns at the TUC, people “will have questions. Find out what they are. Then pre-emptively provide the correct info – not as a mythbuster – but positively and assertively, upfront”.

Professor Sander van der Linden and Dr Jon Roozenbeck at the University of Cambridge have proposed an approach of ’pre-bunking’, which involves pre-emptively warning and exposing people to weakened doses of misinformation, which they believe can help cultivate “mental antibodies” against fake news.

What we can do

Everyone has a role to play in encouraging take up of the vaccine, whether it is celebrities being vaccinated on live TV or individuals posting about their vaccination on Facebook. Example is one of the most powerful forms of leadership. Everyone can also talk to those they know who are unsure about being vaccinated against Covid to give them truthful and reliable information.

The measures for encouraging take up of the vaccine needs also to be targeted towards specific groups, such as certain BAME communities and low paid workers which have been identified as being at risk of low take up of the vaccines. Already there are concerns that take up of the vaccine by BAME people is worryingly low. Careful research and tracking of vaccine take-up to inform action to ensure that take-up of the vaccines is high across society.

We have the means to make deaths from Covid as distant as the smallpox described by Dickens in Bleak House. As we have done so in the past, we need to educate, prevent the spread of misinformation and all work together. Let’s do it.

Omar Salem is founder of Rebuild Our Health Service.

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