KUALA LUMPUR – Now that the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines has arrived in Malaysia and the first group of people are receiving their jabs as we speak, convincing everyone to get vaccinated remains an issue.
Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, are full of anti-vaccine posts, with many getting louder as the official start of the National COVID-19 Immunisation Programme got closer.
Whether the number of anti-vaccine people is big enough to make or break the mass vaccination effort remains to be seen.
Dr Megat Mohammad Amirul Amzar, an exco member of Strategic Planning for Vaccination Campaign, Medical Mythbusters Malaysia, has been tracking social media posts about vaccines.
He said he had noticed an uptick in anti-vaccination chatter once the first COVID-19 vaccine was approved.
“(We noticed) there are newer individuals who come up and become very vocal about vaccines. We were seeing the numbers of anti-vaccine on Facebook doubling after the pandemic started,” he said.
The warnings, many targeting the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine which utilises the new m-RNA technology, range from the ridiculous – the m-RNA vaccine will change your DNA and/or has a 5G chip that will control you – to the reasonable – vaccines usually take a long time to approve so can we trust something that came out within a year?
Conditions were different
As for concerns over the speed of the COVID-19 vaccine approval versus previous vaccines, experts say the conditions under which the previous vaccines were developed were different.
Dr Amirul said one reason was that previous vaccines did not deal with an active, uncontrolled infection affecting almost all countries at the same time.
“We have a lot of guinea pigs (for the human trials phase) … COVID-19 is affecting the whole world so it was quite easy to find people who can volunteer to be part of the study,” he said.
Structural changes to vaccine development have also helped speed things along, such as “massive sharing of information” between scientists and researchers in real-time and concurrent clinical trials.
“This is a proper, true emergency,” said Prof Dr Sandy Loh Hwei San, virologist and Associate Dean and Professor at the University of Nottingham-Malaysia.
“(Vaccine-makers) are following proper procedures for testing the vaccines; it’s just that the speed is 10 times faster,” she added.
She also said people should take vaccines as soon as possible to protect as many people as possible before the mutations render the vaccines ineffective.
“We have to compete with the speed of mutation,” she said, adding that vaccinating the population would provide time for vaccine-makers to adjust to any new significant mutations and save lives.
Should the global COVID-19 mortality rate be the same as Malaysia’s at 0.4 percent, that means 31.2 million people will die without a vaccine. Since the vaccines have shown between 50 to 95 percent rate of efficacy, vaccinating will cut down on the number of severe cases and deaths even more than current public health measures, while allowing life and the economy to return to a semblance of normality.
Convincing people not easy
However, convincing people to do what is good for them and their loved ones may not be easy, as Prof Tan Maw Pin, professor of geriatric medicine at Universiti Putra Malaysia, has found.
She said family members and caregivers were hesitant about vaccinating the elderly although senior citizens are the ones most likely to suffer and die from COVID-19.
“We always have this problem with interventions when it comes to older people. They always say ‘Is it safe?’ Well, is it so safe to get COVID-19 then?” she said at a recent virtual conference on the Vaccination Plan for Staff and Residents at Elderly Care Centres.
Part of the fear is due to reports of deaths among people who had received their vaccine, during trials and after they have been vaccinated, including the deaths of 23 elderly people in Norway. Subsequent investigations found all deaths were coincidental and not caused by the vaccine.
In the case of the 23 deaths, the Norwegian Medicines Agency told medical journal The BMJ that they were already very frail and had serious illnesses.
Dr Amirul said people hear news about deaths among individuals who had just been immunised, but many do not understand that correlation did not mean causation.
“According to their statistics, there are about 400 deaths occurring (weekly) for that particular age group. Without the vaccinations, deaths would still have occurred because of illness and old age,” he said.
As of Jan 15, more than 20,000 doses have been dispensed in Norway.
To counter such misinformation and disinformation, what is said and how it is said are very important.
Global market research company IPSOS suggests vaccine messaging playing on people’s moral responsibility and stresses the safety of the jabs, among others. And there is plenty of data to back that up. Almost every day, there are studies published finding vaccinations have reduced transmission and hospitalisation rates and lowered death rates.
But the vaccine messaging should not just be playing on civic responsibility and the importance of protecting the community.
While fact-checking and educating the masses on the science behind the vaccine, focusing on the benefits of immunisation should be part of the public health messaging to increase participation.
Experts, including sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, suggest rather than just warning people to keep up COVID-19 precautions, vaccine campaigns should stop “underselling” vaccines by emphasising the personal positives of mass vaccinations.
Dr Amirul agreed, saying vaccines provided the best chance for people to go back to their pre-COVID lives, within reason.
“It’s simple … If you cannot get an infection, you won’t spread it to others. When you don’t spread to others, the incidence of cases will go down and eventually, this pandemic will die off on its own,” he said.