Talking Vaccine Doubters Off The Fence Can Beat Anti-Vax Sentiment

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In a misleading video that recently went viral on Facebook, a man narrates as he scrolls through possible Covid-19 vaccine side effects, including death, reported in the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or VAERS, a government-run clearinghouse for potential issues with vaccines. 

The video has been viewed on Facebook more than 21,000 times since late March and shared on the platform more than 2,000 times. There are many more like it strewn across the web. 

When the speaker in the video gets to alleged deaths associated with Covid vaccines, he starts scrolling through hundreds of cases.

“See that? All of them are dead people! Dead people!” he exclaims. “Why does nobody talk about them dying from the vaccine? Much less Covid itself.”

It’s a chilling video that underscores how easily information can be distorted when there are large gaps in public knowledge.  VAERS, created by the federal government in 1990 and co-managed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, is intended as an early warning system. In the final episode of “Doubt,” a new Prognosis podcast series that explores vaccine hesitancy, Bloomberg News examines how VAERS has become a favored tool of anti-vaccine propaganda and how some health policy experts are beginning to fight back.

Anyone — a doctor, a patient, or an anti-vaccine activist — can report an adverse reaction or other perceived problem to VAERS. If patterns emerge, the CDC and the FDA investigate. Every report is also available to the public, though they haven’t been verified or fact-checked.

Such monitoring systems provide crucial benefits. Last week, the CDC and FDA recommended a pause in the rollout of the Johnson & Johnson Covid shot after just six cases of blood clots were reported to VAERS among the nearly seven million people who received the vaccine.

 Six cases is an extremely small number of adverse events, especially in the face of a virus that has killed more than half a million Americans. But every medical intervention carries some  risk. And the Johnson & Johnson setback simply showed safeguards put in place — like the VAERS reporting system — are working.

Anti-vaccine propaganda, though, uses the same reports to peddle a faulty version of reality. “Latest VAERS data shows vaccine injury trends continue,” read one email newsletter headline from a major anti-vaccine group last week.  Such content is difficult to combat because it lacks context. The video of the man scrolling through VAERS appears on Facebook with a caption reading “DEATH TOLL CLIMBING!!!.” The video is visible to anyone on Facebook, even though the social platform has attached a warning that its content is taken out of context.

“The anti-vaccine movement doesn't so much manufacture reality as manipulates it,” says Joe Smyser, the head of The Public Good Projects, a public health nonprofit that has been analyzing vaccine misinformation through an initiative called Project VCTR. “They'll look for any adverse event and then they'll turn that into media.”

In VAERS, anyone can read all the details of injuries people say happened after getting vaccinated. In order to view VAERS data, a reader clicks through a robust disclaimer that explains that injuries reported may have nothing to do with vaccines. If you learned about VAERS from an anti-vaccine group, though, the disclaimer will likely do little to influence how you interpret the data, if you bothered to read it at all.

Anti-vaccine groups have also seized on so-called breakthrough cases, in which vaccinated individuals contract the virus. Such cases were expected — no vaccine is 100% effective. Still, anti-vaccine groups use them to exaggerate the risks and suggest they outweigh benefits, such as saving lives and keeping people out of the hospital. “246 Fully Vaccinated Michiganders Get COVID,” one recent anti-vaccine group newsletter subject line read.

One reason anti-vaccine groups are able to manipulate these narratives is because of a lack of public outreach by legitimate health experts.  Public health entities like the CDC haven’t much focused on education about vaccine side-effects or what efficacy rates even mean. This makes anti-vaccine messages all-the-more believable.

“We want to be transparent, but we want to be transparent about only the positive things,” says Chris Martin, a professor at West Virginia University School of Public Health. “That has confused people and undermined their confidence in what should be the trusted source of information.”

 One study of Covid-19 misinformation by the Vaccine Confidence Project found that while scientific-sounding Covid misinformation lowers people’s interest in vaccination, giving them factual information to correct the misinformation doesn’t make them more likely to get a vaccine.

No one is in a better position to engage the public and shift the debate on vaccine hesitancy than Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.  Fauci has gone on a virtual speaking campaign, offering frank conversations about people’s concerns. 

Still, there’s much work to do. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 17% of Americans plan to wait and see how the rollout goes before getting vaccinated, another 7% will do so only if required and 13% do not plan to get it at all. Those numbers are high enough to threaten efforts to achieve the widespread immunity needed to end the pandemic. 

Teaching physicians, nurses and public health experts how to talk to people about their vaccine hesitancy is the most effective step health providers can now take, according to Martin.

“We need to train the trainers,” he says. 

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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