We are losing ground on misinformation surrounding vaccination

We are losing ground on misinformation surrounding COVID vaccination. It will only get worse.

Public health authorities and our governments will have to battle inaccuracies and lies to get people immunized

As covid-19 cases surge and lockdowns, distancing and mask use continues, the early stages of distribution of two highly effective vaccines —now authorized for emergency use —are a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.

But this is just the very beginning of what will be another long journey, in many ways even more complex than the age-old disease control measures that we have all been learning to navigate over the past year.

We have barely begun the real task of coronavirus vaccine rollout. 2021 will be one of the most critical years of our collective lives. Will we be able to slow the swell of cases? Are we prepared for the challenges ahead and ready to manage the inevitable risks?

The first year of the pandemic was riddled with misinformation and disinformation, and the vaccines will bring more rumors and falsehoods. As hundreds of millions of people around the world get immunized, it is inevitable that some will experience adverse reactions —and some may still get covid-19. Public health officials need to prepare now for how to answer good-faith questions and fend off deliberate lies.

With so many people getting vaccinated, there will be adverse events. One type will be coincidental events that seem to be related to the vaccine because they happen around the same time as people get the injection, but they are not actually caused by the vaccine. In this case, older populations are being prioritized, along with health-care workers. This is an age group that normally has a higher frequency of illness and death, so sooner or later, someone will get sick or die soon after vaccination. Even if it is completely unrelated, there is a danger that people will think it was caused by the vaccine. On the other hand, there may also be adverse events that are actually found to be caused by the vaccine —such as the small number of people who experienced a severe adverse reaction called anaphylaxis following vaccination, due to underlying allergies specific to ingredients in the vaccine. Those with other underlying allergies can still take the vaccine.

Officials will have to investigate any such episodes carefully and quickly so that the public can be either reassured that the adverse events were coincidental or alerted to underlying conditions in which the vaccine is not recommended.

We have already seen a proliferation of misinformation and disinformation surrounding the SARS-CoV-2 virus, its origins,and the various measures to contain its spread, including vaccination. Some of this misinformation is due to uncertainties, even in the scientific community, surrounding the new virus as well as the treatments and vaccines that are under development or newly approved. People are struggling to make sense of the state of things, relying on news headlines, news releases, heard and socially shared news —and they sometimes wind-up spreading misinformation inadvertently.

Another challenge ahead will be convincing people to continue to wear masks and keep their distance even after they are vaccinated. What is the point of vaccinating if you still need to keep wearing a mask? Well, for one thing, the vaccine does not work immediately. It takes a while for the first dose’s protection to kick in, and then you still need to get your second dose to be fully immunized. Even then, in principle, we need to get enough people vaccinated for wider protection before shedding other precautions. But the reality is that while we know that these vaccines can prevent serious disease and death, we will not yet know whether they prevent transmission to others until enough people get vaccinated.

But there are also those who are purposely spreading harmful, incorrect information, trying to disrupt and seed doubts to undermine public confidence. While fact-checking and debunking rumors is helpful, it is not sustainable. This is a deeper threat, which needs a resilient public armed not only with positive, clear information but a clear sense of where this is all headed —a path, a direction for a better 2021 within which we situate the story of how society and science can come together around a vaccine that changed the world

Although it is not possible to inoculate everyone against misinformation on a permanent basis, if enough people have gained a sufficient level of psychological immunity to misinformation, fake news will nothave a chance to spread as far and as wide as it does currently. This will help arrest the alarming growth of anti-vaccination sentiment on the internet.Fact-check please.

It could be an extraordinary moment. If we get it right.