Debunking the Vaccine Fear

The discovery of vaccines led to the control of many viral diseases once thought incurable. Although vaccination techniques have completely wiped out some infectious diseases around the globe i.e., smallpox. But many such diseases persist in some corners of the world i.e., polio while being eradicated from others.

Polio is still prevalent in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Pakistan, 169 and 204 cases of polio in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Although, Pakistan Polio Eradication Programme was launched in 1994.   Since then, polio cases have massively declined, but it has been unsuccessful in the complete eradication of polio. Polio cases are resilient in only those areas where children are not getting vaccinated. Vaccine scepticism has been increasingly widespread throughout the world including Pakistan.  Why?

A possible explanation has been suggested by two researchers at the University of Texas, Department of Psychological Sciences. Mark LaCour and Tyler Davis have suggested, in a research article published in Vaccine journal that people find vaccines unsafe. Sceptics overestimate the likelihood of negative events due to vaccines which are very rare in reality. They overestimate all negative events, not only of vaccines.

In reality, it has been found that vaccine sceptics think differently from people who think normally. “We might have assumed that people who are high in vaccine scepticism would have overestimated the likelihood of negative vaccine-related events, but it is more surprising that this is true for negative, mortality-related events as a broader category,” said Davis. Authors also have found the thinking pattern of sceptics tend to overestimate things other than vaccines. This indicates the basic cognitive variables that influence vaccine scepticism.

Researchers have tested participants regarding their vaccine scepticism underlying their perceived dangers, disillusionment, feelings of powerlessness, and trust in authorities regarding vaccines. They have also questioned them for positive and neutral events such as triplets’ birth. LaCour and Davis found that sceptics were less accurate in mortality related events. But they were overestimating the negative events more than neutral and positive events.

Investigators concluded that people do not have the best understanding of how likely or probable discrete events are. They are easily swayed by anecdotal horror stories e.g. a child can have a seizure after vaccination. It is extremely rare yet possible. If someone is inclined, he follows such stories about rare events on social media which exacerbate this thinking. They also found that there is no linkage between a person’s education and scepticism but his information sources are different from others. Sceptics have an attentional bias towards such information, or they memorize it quickly. Researchers have dismissed the notion that illiterate people are prone to such false information.

In Pakistan, some religious groups are sceptical of vaccines and propagate conspiracy theories against vaccines. They hamper the process of vaccination in the country. Such elements widely use social media to disseminate unfounded information regarding vaccines. Despite the presence of sceptics, the lack of infrastructure has also contributed to the persistence of polio in Pakistan.

To deal with scepticism, targeted awareness campaigns along with the support of religious clerics can help in vaccination programs. Sceptics should be discouraged from breeding erroneous information regarding vaccines by social media regulators. The government should ensure the swift delivery of the vaccine to every individual without any discrimination.

As the delivery of the COVID-19 vaccine is imminent, many surveys indicate the respondents’ hesitation of being vaccinated. According to the Ipsos survey, only 46% of the participants said they would take the vaccine without any reservation. It is an alarming situation, therefore all stakeholders must start devising a strategy for its fair and timely distribution while tackling the scepticism.

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