vaccine myths busted
Image Credit: Vijith Pulikkal / Gulf News

Dubai: Vaccine alarmism and outright disinformation are different faces of a Hydra-headed creature. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, conspiracy theories have resurfaced — from the depths of discredited yarn. And social media have become abuzz with repurposed alarmist content, about how vaccines could change your DNA (not true).

One theory suggests that vaccines are the "work of the devil”. One anti-vax vlogger, "Lynn Channel" on Facebook calls the World Health Organisation (WHO) as "WHO-jas", as in Judas, the betrayer. Also, a popular anti-vax whipping boy is Bill Gates, whom conspiracy theorists accuse of aspiring global domination through COVID-19 shots. Another version of this narrative: vaccines are no good, cannot be trusted, or that they don’t work at all.

A collection of such disinformation is like Hydra. They bump up vaccine hesitancy. The WHO defines anti-vaccination or anti-vax — as a reluctance, or refusal, to be vaccinated or to have one's children vaccinated against contagious diseases — despite the availability of vaccination services.

Who is Hydra?
In Greek mythology the Hydra (or Lernaean hydra) was a serpent-like monster. According to Theogony 313, the Hydra is the child of Typhon and Echidna. The Hydra had many heads. If you cut off one hydra head, two more would grow back in its place.

False claims

Some doctors peddle false vaccine claims. “It’s not a vaccine at all, it’s a dangerous experimental gene therapy,” claims Dr. Steven Hotze, specifically referring to the mRNA vaccines of Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. Dr Hotze, who also promotes vitamins or supplements that bear his name, urges viewers to “just say no” to the new coronavirus shots. The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) dismissed his claim — as “almost all of it completely wrong”. Moreover exposed Hotze’s claims as “error-filled pitch that baselessly alleges that the mRNA vaccines aren’t actually vaccines at all”.

Image Credit: Seyyed dela Llata / Gulf News

Today, Dr Hotze is on record for having received a warning by US drug regulators following claims about the vitamins his company is peddling — supposedly to curb COVID-19 — without conducting the necessary clinical studies to clear regulatory hurdles.

Dr Hotze’s video strongly urges people to ditch vaccines based on false claims, but it had been hyper-shared on social nonetheless. Dr. Hotze is hardly alone. The anti-vaccine movement is hyper-active online, according to The Lancet.

FDA Warning to anti-vax doctor
In December 2020, the Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission sent Hotze a letter warning him to stop selling his line of vitamins by using misleading suggestions that they could treat or prevent COVID-19. The letter was published by the FDA on its website.

How big is the anti-vaccine movement online?

The Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) reports the online anti-vaccine movement has gained increasing sophistication. An article in The Lancet shows how the anti-vax camp engage in a vicious cycle of peddling falsehoods on social media that gain massive traction — for the host platform. It’s a mutually-beneficial deal. Where eyeballs are (through red-hot comments/shares/interactions), ad revenues go.

Alongside the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, the anti-vax numbers have spiked: CCDH report noted that 31 million people follow anti-vaccine groups on Facebook, with 17 million people subscribing to similar accounts on YouTube.

Lyn Channel
Lynn Channel is a prolific anti-vax site on Faceboook, which ropes in hundreds of thousands of followers and shares. When she posted a link to the story stating Pfizer will launch a trial to test COVID vaccine in children as young as 6 months old, one follower reacted in Filipino: "Poor babies who will be turned into rats." Lynn Channel also dismisses factcheck sites as "fakecheckers". Image Credit: Facebook Screengrab

Ad revenues up on falsehood?

“Despite promises to keep users safe, we show how Big Tech itself makes up to $1 billion a year in advertising and other revenues from this industry, which threatens the effectiveness of a future Coronavirus vaccine,” CCDH rued in a recent report.

“The decision to continue hosting known misinformation content and actors left online anti-vaxers ready to pounce on the opportunity presented by coronavirus”, the centre stated. It also warned “that the growing anti-vaccine movement could undermine the roll-out of any future vaccine against COVID-19.”

Image Credit: Seyyed dela Llata / Gulf News

Freedom of speech: By spreading false vaccine information?

Vish Viswanath, Professor of Health Communication in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T H Chan School of Public Health, disagrees that those sites should be taken down outright.

“This is an issue of freedom of speech,” said Prof. Viswanath. “Unless you have a situation where there is blatant misinformation that is directly causing harm, you have to ask ‘where do you draw the line?’ You might have actors whose anti-vax activities are not taking place on their social media channel, are they also to be removed?”

Following are the some of the most common vaccine misconceptions:

MISCONCEPTION #1: “Vaccines are weapons of mass destruction. They’re agents of death and the devil”

Such absurd claims are quite common. This came from 22-minute long Facebook video, in which a man who identifies himself as Dr. Vernon Coleman has a lot to say about the COVID-19 vaccines. Vaccine-hesitant groups exploit the deaths of people who happen to die from old age or underlying health conditions after receiving the vaccine.

But no, vaccines are not weapons of mass destruction. This vaccines-will-kill-a-large-portion-of-the-world’s-population is rooted in the widely-debunked “Great Reset” and “Agenda 21” conspiracy theories. No evidence exists that show deaths have been caused by COVID-19 vaccines. On the other hand, lives had been prolonged by vaccines.

MISCONCEPTION #2: “The majority of people who get disease have been vaccinated”

The message behind this claim: This proves vaccines don’t work. Answer: The fact that COVID-19 cases are dropping in countries where there’s a high rate of vaccination is solid proof that they do work. In Israel, the UAE, and some parts of the US where vaccination rates are high, new cases have dropped significantly.

What is Vaccine Conspiracy Belief Scale (VCBS)?
VCBS is a measure of attitudes towards COVID-19 vaccines. The higher the score, the greater the belief in vaccine conspiracy.

• In one study published in the journal 'Vaccines' with 3,414 respondents, beliefs that COVID-19 vaccines have foul motives were high — 27.7% believed the shots will inject microchips into recipients; and another 23% believe the vaccines are related to infertility (23.4%). Both are not true.

• Higher VCBS scores were found among females, respondents with lower educational levels and respondents relying on social media platforms as the main source of information.

• In certain countries, say researchers, vaccine hesitancy may represent a massive obstacle to the successful control of the pandemic.

• A reliance on social media as the main source of information about COVID-19 vaccines was associated with vaccine hesitancy.

MISCONCEPTION #3: “Vaccines cause death”

When 37 cases of cerebral venous thrombosis (CVT) out of 17 million AstraZeneca vaccines administered in Europe were reported, it immediately raised alarm bells and led to a temporary ban of a vaccine in up to 20 countries. It was lifted a week later, when authorities saw it was a false alarm. A closer look at the numbers show the incidence of death in a given population with certain diseases, such as CVT, is the same — if not higher — in an unvaccinated population, even before the pandemic.

With more than 652 million COVID-19 vaccine doses now administered across the world, suggestions that the jab may be causing death among some populations have quickly spread online, undermining inoculation efforts. But Scandinavian health officials debunked claims that a number of elderly people died following vaccinations. The deaths, they said, were likely to be coincidental.

MISCONCEPTION #4: "Diseases had already begun to disappear before vaccines were introduced, because of better hygiene and sanitation.”

This is a common, but unproven “fact” the anti-vaccine camp often cites. The message behind this claim: vaccines are not needed. But it’s just the reverse that’s true, in diseases where vaccines, after rigorous tests, are proven to work. In the case of COVID-19, cases are still spiking and certain European countries are imposing lockdowns as a result. But cases have eased in countries that ramped up COVID vaccinations.

The actual incidence of disease shows the significant direct impact vaccines have had in modern times. Improved vaccine development and distribution have greatly curbed deaths from vaccine-preventable disease like polio, pertussis, measles, diphtheria, rubella, mumps — and other debilitating diseases. Also, quicker access to information have increased survival rates among the sick.

In the case of measles, for example, a huge drop in measles incidence was directly correlated with the approval and use of measles vaccine from 1963. The same thing with pertussis, diphtheria and other vaccine-treatable disease.

Polio had afflicted mankind for centuries, going back at least to the age of the pharaohs, until most of the 20th century (polio shot was invented by John Salk in 1955). In 1921, Franklin D. Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio, at the age of 39. Though unable to walk unaided, he became the 32nd president of the US (1933 to 1945). Do you know any head of state today afflicted with polio? Today, two out of the three strains of wild polio virus have been eradicated worldwide. In 2020, Africa has been declared free of the last remaining strain of wild poliovirus. More than 95% of Africa's population has now been immunised.

MISCONCEPTION #5: "There are ‘hot lots’ of vaccines associated with more adverse events and deaths than others"

The message behind this claim: The more reports of adverse events a vaccine lot is associated with, the more dangerous the vaccine in that lot. People should identify vaccine lots to avoid.

This argument gets a lot of media attention. But the concept of a "hot lot" of vaccine as it is used in this context is wrong. Two reasons why this is misleading: One, an adverse report following vaccination does not mean that the vaccine caused the event. Two, although vaccines are known to cause minor, temporary side effects such as soreness or fever, there is little, if any, evidence linking vaccination with permanent health problems or death. Just because an “adverse event” has been reported by the surveillance system, it does not mean it was caused by a vaccine.

Fighting wrong information with right information:

The science behind COVID-19 is still evolving. Vaccines have worked in the past. They've been demonstrated to work against COVID, at least the ones that had been given emergency-use or full authorisation. But there's a fringe community trashing vaccines wholesale, and advancing the big-profits-from-big-pharma narrative. They cite non-existent “evidence”. All these help driving up vaccine hesitancy.

But experts say the best antidote is the law — where it applies (for example, by preventing a person or an entity from endorsing an unproven, unlicensed therapy). The other is to highlight the science — the massive body of vaccine knowledge accumulated over the last 225 years since Edward Jenner's smallpox virus vaccine; the mount of painstaking work put in by researchers; the altruism of tens of thousands of volunteers who signed up for massive human trials that led to scientific data which gave authorities confidence to authorise the candidate COVID-19 jabs.

Authorities in different jurisdictions can elect to shut down individual anti-vax sites. But Prof. Viswanath argues that shutting down conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccine campaigners risks turning them into martyrs — and could even lend credence to their arguments that they are speaking truth to power. In short, taking away the stage won't mean anti-vaxers would go away. They have very deep-rooted beliefs, and they will simply find another stage.

What’s the antidote to misinformation?

The best antidote to disinformation, or false information, is correct information. This includes an admission that science cannot offer immediate answers to important questions, as experimentation and observation take time. The anti-vax camp, both organised and solo operators, often exploit this uncertainty. They know one more thing: Frankenstein stories grab clicks. Most believe that the "facts" they hold are true, or at least has some monetary value when they go viral on social.

Audience studies show that information that spreads fear-mongering and conspiracy theories are more likely to be shared than boring information backed by clinical, peer-reviewed data published in journals. To be sure, it would take a serious amount of time and energy for vaccine advocates to slay the Hydra-headed anti-vaccine “facts”.