When distrust boosts risk
Our lives today are built around how we might best survive this worldwide pandemic of COVID-19.
Because the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is everywhere, yet invisible, and because its effects on any particular person are generally unknowable in advance, we all sensibly must take whatever steps we possibly can to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
One of those steps appears to be to get inoculated with one of the vaccines that have, amazingly, been produced in a matter of months by several drug manufacturers around the world.
Getting people vaccinated is becoming more important by the day because the virus has been quickly mutating into even more transmissible (and possibly more lethal) versions.
Unfortunately, the roll-out of this world-wide vaccination effort has not been going according to plan. Supplies have been much less than originally promised by the drug manufacturers, to date at least. Complex and overlapping rules to prioritize certain groups and require appointments are wreaking havoc with people’s lives.
Many older adults report herculean, yet failed, efforts to obtain a coveted appointment, leading family members and volunteers to spend hours on the phone and computer trying to help them.
And yet, even while there has been a rush by millions to snag one of the few available appointments, there are others who adamantly refuse the possibly life-saving vaccines.
Ironically, many of those who reject the vaccine are among the groups who most need protection and are ranked at highest priority by the system: older adults, workers in skilled nursing facilities, and people of color, whose communities have been hardest hit with severe illness and death.
Why would those people refuse the vaccine?
I’m sure everyone has their own story, but there seem to be a few common beliefs and feelings that might explain it.
Some — especially healthcare workers, it seems — are worried about the safety of a vaccine developed so quickly. They know it usually takes years to develop and thoroughly test a new drug or vaccine to ensure it is safe and effective. Some say they doubt it’s possible to have produced a safe, effective vaccine so quickly.
However reasonable that fear may be, there are two key points to understand. First, researchers have been developing a completely new type of vaccine, utilizing messenger RNA (mRNA), ever since the original SARS virus appeared in China in 2002 and quickly spread worldwide.
While that virus was contained (it was more lethal than COVID-19, but less transmissible) and has not been spotted since 2004, the fear of it and others potentially like it has impelled vaccine researchers to determine the best way to fight such viruses in the future.
Lucky for us, they were far along in understanding the mRNA process and so were able to quickly develop today’s vaccines that have proven so effective against COVID-19.
A related fear, that the vaccine might cause multiple or serious complications in many people, has also not come to pass.
Not only have the clinical trials of the last few months inoculated tens of thousands of volunteers with very limited reports of bad reactions, but as of now, tens of millions of people throughout the world have been given one of the many vaccines out there, and the evidence is overwhelming that they are quite safe.
While individuals who are allergic to components of the vaccine may be susceptible to a serious reaction, those can generally be noted and controlled within a half hour of inoculation. Even so, CDC guidelines recommend not giving the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines to individuals with a history of severe allergic reactions to other vaccines or injected meds.
On the other hand, I understand no cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome (a very rare neurological condition associated with certain flu vaccines) have been reported from the COVID vaccine trials.
What about the large numbers of people of color who steer clear of the vaccine? What is their rationale?
Unfortunately, there is a reason many Black Americans fear scientific researchers. It largely stems from the immoral, inexcusable Tuskegee syphilis experiments that began in 1932 and continued for 40 years.
Nearly 400 Black men with latent syphilis were recruited for a “clinical study” that promised to treat them for the condition. Instead, unbeknownst to them, the researchers purposely failed to treat the men in any effective way in order to better measure the lifelong ill effects of the condition. By 1947, penicillin was widely available and effective to control it, but it was denied to the men.
Many Black Americans know of this history and have grown up with an understandable distrust of American medicine. An anti-vaccine advocacy group has also written about Tuskegee recently, aiming to alarm minority groups about the COVID-19 vaccines by reminding or informing them of it.
However, it should be more widely known that precisely because of the inexcusable Tuskegee “study,” clinical trials today are now highly regulated and subject to public disclosure rules and wide oversight that would prevent such a travesty from ever occurring again.
Furthermore, it should be clear that people of all races, religions and nationalities — throughout the world — are seeking and getting one or another of the new vaccines. These vaccines hold the best hope for protecting the entire human family from severe illness and death.
If you’ve obtained the vaccine and have seen from experience that it produces no ill effects (other than, perhaps, a sore arm or brief fever), please let your friends and others know. Word of mouth from people like you will have the best chance to counter the effects of past wrongdoing and rumor mills.