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What's behind vaccine resistance

| March 9, 2021 1:00 AM

Whenever enough people share the same worry, rumors fly. Misinformation and distrust thrive in such environments.

For vaccines that’s old news. With pandemics come infodemics which, with keen irony, threaten the potential solution to the problem. This time multiply that by a factor of billions, thanks to the proliferation of digital platforms the likes of which no pandemic had known before.

Virus myths — often with a nugget of truth twisted beyond recognition — instantly go viral. Our choices of what and whom to believe have become limitless. It seems any scenario can be found on the internet with convincing logic — no matter how outlandish.

And it’s much easier to share than verify.

Polio should be completely gone. Yet among the unvaccinated, people still suffer debilitating, painful lives.

Measles cases are up worldwide; children hospitalized, even dying unnecessarily as some parents refuse available vaccines. Why? Because a 1998 study by physician Andrew Wakefield, quickly debunked by scores of other scientists and research, incorrectly claimed the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine causes autism.

Alone, it sounds understandably scary. Add all the research before and after with different results, and most parents choose to vaccinate. A story much like another doctor last year and hydroxychloroquine.

Here are a few of today’s well-refuted vaccine rumors gone viral:

No, the COVID-19 virus isn’t just a “bad flu.” Yes, most survive with a range of no symptoms to hospitalization. But 500,000 deaths (some in otherwise healthy people) in less than a year are a lot more than the flu’s annual 12,000 to 60,000 range. Not to mention longer-term heart and lung problems emerging as COVID side effects.

No, this vaccine can’t alter your DNA. No, unlike flu or shingles vaccines these don’t put a dead virus in your system to create infection-fighting antibodies. These are messenger-RNA vaccines. Put simply, m-RNA provides a code which tricks your body into thinking you have the virus, so it creates antibodies to fight it.

No: There isn’t a global conspiracy to use this pandemic or vaccine tracking chips to serve an authoritarian world government. Global domination theories go way back (and would require incredible cooperation among diverse interests) from the Mongolian Empire to the Masons, Illuminati, and a secretive underground chamber at the Denver airport (check out “Blucifer”).

No, there hasn’t been “a wave of suspicious deaths among the elderly” who got the vaccine. That claim followed a 2021 report that over a few weeks, 33 people over 75 in Norway died after one vaccine dose. Health officials found no evidence of a link and pointed to history: Each day about 45 Norwegians in nursing homes die regardless.

No, the World Health Organization didn’t ditch their mask recommendation at a press conference. They’re still in favor.

But disputing facts isn’t the only thing behind distrust.

Vaccine hesitancy is also a problem of dignity. In this growing realm of individualism, people distrust authority more and want to feel in control, their choices respected. Hence the common cry of “freedom” among those who refuse masks as well as vaccines.

That’s the conclusion of English anthropologist Heidi Larson, who wrote a book on vaccine distrust before this pandemic began. She surveyed the social, psychological, and historical influences on vaccine attitudes in high-income countries, where they’re most accessible. She believes public health and other officials need to do a better job of “forging authentic relationships” that build confidence with the public, beginning with understanding changing contexts.

Increased resistance represents a key difference between earlier societal viewpoints and modern ones. It also exemplifies a delineation deepening political divides:

Individualism vs. public good.

Early in the pandemic, many compared restriction hardships to the WWII experience. In 1940s society few disputed that a little sacrifice for common good made sense. But the rise of individualism over collective benefit makes that a harder pill for the modern public to swallow.

Larson observed that now more people in affluent countries see healthcare as a consumer service rather than a right. That viewpoint flies in the face of immunizations, which are a common good — the vaccination choice affects others as well as self.

The growing priority of individualism, coupled with the human need to be heard and taken seriously, creates fertile ground for distrust of vaccines and the authorities promoting them.

Can that change? Larson warns that to preserve the societal benefits of vaccination, it is essential to respond to the new public mood, respecting where others are coming from, encouraging broader verification, and inspiring mutual protection without judgment.

Next time: A first-hand vaccine experience.

“The level of our success is limited only by our imagination and no act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.” — Aesop

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email Sholeh@cdapress.com.