Clear message from top is needed to battle vaccine hesitancy

New DelhiEdited By: Gravitas deskUpdated: May 11, 2021, 11:00 AM IST


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The vaccines are safe and effective. Variant or not, make sure you get the shot at the earliest

Vaccine hesitancy, in other words, delay or refusal to take a vaccine, is more common than thought. It is the biggest threat to global vaccine rollout. Bigger than shortage and side effects.

Vaccine hesitancy is as old as vaccines themselves. There is no single reason for it. In some places, hesitancy is based on religion. Elsewhere, it is politics. But whatever the reason, the end result is never good.

Look at some of the examples from history. These are all instances where vaccine hesitancy led to outbreaks.

In 1873 in Stockholm, vaccination rate dropped from 90 per cent to 40 per cent. It was triggered by a religious anti-vax campaign.

A deadly smallpox epidemic spread that same year.

Another example is from UK and Ireland. In year 2000, people started linking the measles vaccine to Autism. The vaccination rates dropped below 80 per cent. There were 300 cases, 100 hospitalisations and three deaths. All of this was preventable.

The bottomline is that vaccine hesitancy is dangerous. Deadly in fact. The World Health Organisation (WHO) ranks it as one of the top 10 global health threats.

A proper messaging right from the top can beat this threat.

One would expect WHO to give facts and robust advice. Instead, there is confusion and conjecture.

On Saturday, WHO's Chief Scientist Soumya Swaminathan was talking about Wuhan virus variant detected in India.

"The one (variant) that was first identified in India, the B 1.617 is likely to be a variant of concern because it has some mutations, which increase transmission, and which also potentially could make them resistant to antibodies that are generated by vaccination or by natural infection," she said.

'Likely' and 'potentially' are the words you don't want health experts to say. Because this is in the realm of possibility.

Words have consequences, especially when coming from the WHO's top scientist. She says the new variants may evade the vaccines. There are a lot of people undecided on whether to get the shot. And those people may be swayed by such remarks. They may think if the WHO says it's pointless, why take it?

This is irresponsible, not to mention dangerous. When top officials make such careless remarks, it becomes our duty to set the record straight.

The vaccines are safe and effective. Variant or not, make sure you get the shot at the earliest.

And can the variant really dodge the vaccine?

Last week India's top medical body ICMR published a study. It concluded that Bharat Biotech's Covaxin was effective against the double mutant.

So was the WHO not aware of this study? Or did they choose to ignore it? Or do they disagree with it?

Messaging and response from WHO has been botched up from the word go. WHO did nothing for more than a month when it got news of the virus in December 2019.

It was on January 30 that Dr Tedros finally declare a public health emergency. It took him another month to utter the word pandemic. A lot of harm was done during this time. Some countries banned travel links with China. They were declared racist by the WHO. Dr Tedros called these bans an unnecessary interference. One year later, those countries stand vindicated.

What about lockdowns? The WHO's envoy David Nabarro said lockdowns should be the last resort. Today this is true because we have vaccines. But last year, this advice made no sense. Lockdowns were humanity's first line of defence. It was a circuit breaker for countries to build up resources.

But nothing compares to the WHO's advice on masks.

The headline saying "Face masks could do more harm than good if used incorrectly" is a classic example of negative advice.

The WHO is trying to ask people to wear their masks correctly, but the statement does the opposite. It scares them.

They instead should have made a campaign video on how to wear masks correctly. This is communication 101. Positive messages stick, negative don't. 

These are just a few instances where the WHO stumbled. Unfortunately, it happened all the time last year. From masks to lockdowns to travel bans to now vaccines.

The WHO has been like a loose cannon. Firing off assumptions and conjectures. These things are normally expected from politicians and not from health experts.

But then again, the WHO stopped being a health body in 2020.