The danger that comes from rapid spread of misinformation


With the amount of fake news being spread about the Covid-19 vaccines, it would be wise to independently verify the information in any messages received on this topic. — dpa

While Malaysia hopes to achieve herd immunity against Covid-19 by February 2022, there remains hesitancy to receiving the vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

In the last few months, there has been a rise in those registering for the vaccine, with recent figures at the time of writing indicating that approximately one-third of the population have done so.

However, revised estimates have indicated that herd immunity will only be achieved when 70-85% of the population are fully vaccinated.

Malaysia is aiming for 80% of its population to receive the vaccine.

Therefore, despite the recent increase in vaccine registration, Malaysia remains a long way from its target.

This is alarming given the recent spike in the numbers of new Covid-19 cases and deaths worldwide.

One only needs to look at the devastating and horrific situation in India and Brazil to be reminded of the dangers of this disease.

With hospitals being overloaded due to a shortage of beds and ventilators, countries such as Vietnam, Japan and Malaysia are showing trends that could lead to a severe public health crisis.

The invisibility of the threat is something that is perhaps difficult for a large percentage of the world’s population to grasp.

It could be argued that this is because most major disease epidemics have been eradicated, therefore, we have little firsthand experience of the devastation such infectious diseases can cause.

This is not because the threat disappeared on its own, but rather, through the effectiveness of modern science and the development of vaccines.

Rapid spread

Due to the low confidence of the public in the available Covid-19 vaccines, it is important to remember how vaccines have helped us tackle public health crises in the past.

Polio, which has affected humanity throughout recorded history, leads to varying degrees of paralysis.

By 1955, the first successful polio vaccine was declared effective, and more importantly, safe for mass distribution to the public.

Families then were queueing in the streets in the hope of receiving the vaccine to shield themselves against the polio virus – a stark difference to the reception of the Covid-19 vaccines, with many declining the vaccine or skipping their vaccination appointment.

There can be a number of reasons why the population remains hesitant to the Covid-19 vaccines, e.g. distrust in organisations and institutions, staunch belief in personal freedom and autonomy, and concerns about vaccine safety and efficacy.

These reasons are amplified by social networking sites (SNS) and cross-platform instant messaging services (IMS).

These tools have emerged as powerful health communication platforms for the distribution of information.

For example, during the early period of the Covid-19 pandemic, they were awash with information, narratives of lived experiences, and citizen advice from a range of sources.

Soon after, however, these platforms became filled with fake Covid-19 news, which continue to propagate now.

A recent example of this was a viral message on SNS and IMS indicating that French virologist and Nobel laureate Dr Luc Montagnier had claimed that “all vaccinated people will die within two years”.

Since then, India’s Press Information Bureau has confirmed that the claims are false, with eminent vaccine experts also providing evidence against this statement.

However, the status of a Nobel Prize winner gave emphasis to the erroneous message, even if these were not his words.

Similar to the status of actors being used in the distribution of misinformation, technological advancements make fake news seem legitimate to the extent that it is sometimes hard to tell real Covid-19 news from the fake.

Sowing doubt

The development of technology has always been followed by misinformation and conspiracy theories, e.g. the moon landings and the development of the television.

This is similar to what we are seeing with Covid-19 and the vaccine programmes.

Misinformation has saturated popular platforms such as WhatsApp and Twitter, where credibility is given to the content once it is spread within trusted groups, such as friends or family.

This can lead to many not registering for the vaccines as they believe that they are receiving correct information.

Much of the misinformation is spread by organised anti-vaccination movements, which have been around since the first vaccine for smallpox in the 1800s.

Anti-vaccination protestors argue against medical science in favour of their own interpretations, such as the Montagnier example above.

There can be numerous explanations why these anti-vaccination groups exist, with one being financial.

There is great financial benefit through fear of the situation we are in, with many making a huge profit from selling products like natural supplements, and social media earnings.

However, the spread of dangerous misinformation, such as natural remedies as an alternative to the vaccine, can destabilise vaccine programmes and lead to significant public harm.

Anti-vaccination groups do not need to prove that they are correct in their beliefs, they only need to cause doubt.

The fear from this doubt of the public is natural, as at the end of the day we just want what is best for ourselves and our family.

However, such doubt can have a lasting effect in the minds of people, despite the misinformation being debunked, and can be devastating as a result.

Lasting mistrust

In 1998, Andrew Wakefield, then a doctor, speculated a possible relationship between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

The results of Wakefield’s work were debunked due to lack of evidence supporting his findings; however, MMR vaccination rates began to drop soon after due to fear and confusion over the safety of the vaccine.

Following this, measles outbreaks have recurred around the world.

For originating one of the most serious medical frauds in history, Wakefield was removed from the medical register in the United Kingdom and may no longer practice medicine.

However, the effect of the misinformation remains, with many people still believing in the possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Similarly, with the Covid-19 vaccines, there is significant risk that misinformation across SNS and IMS may lead to lasting negative attitudes and/or mistrust in the vaccine process.

Make no mistake, we are at war with this invisible enemy.

This is a war that has no borders or rules, and is indiscriminate in its attack, targeting everyone regardless of ethnicity, gender or socioeconomic group.

It endangers our lives, our loved ones, our community and our way of life.

Our only tactics so far have been defensive, with physical distancing, the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and frequent handwashing or sanitising.

However, we finally have a weapon to reduce further devastation.

Achieving herd immunity would allow us to vastly increase the protection around ourselves and our family.

It is essential that we listen to real vaccine information from reputable medical scientists and follow the national guidelines.

Here, we answer some common questions on the vaccine, with the most up-to-date evidence available.

Why should I be vaccinated?

The Covid-19 vaccines will help your body develop immunity against the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

If you get exposed to this virus in the future, your immune system will be able to fight off the virus quickly before you become ill.

Vaccination also helps to protect those around you, such as your family.

This is especially important for those at high risk of get-ting severe Covid-19, such as older adults and those with other medical conditions.

What are the side effects?

As with any medicines, minor side effects can occur after vaccination.

Commonly reported side effects are pain, swelling and/or redness at the injection site; fatigue; headache; fever; and chills.

These side effects only last for one to two days.

Advice on how to manage these, or any other side effects, will be provided at the vaccination centres.

Are the vaccines dangerous?

Vaccines are only licensed after undergoing rigorous clinical studies and a strict regulatory approval process to ensure their quality, safety and efficacy.

All vaccines approved by the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Agency for use in Malaysia are safe and effective.

Risk of serious disease, complications (e.g. blood clots) and death from Covid-19 are far more compared to the risk of any rare side effects from the vaccines.

What are the differences between the various vaccines? Should I wait for a specific one?

There are three vaccines currently available in Malaysia, namely, Pfizer/BioNTech (mRNA), AstraZeneca/Oxford (modified virus vector) and Sinovac (inactivated whole virus).

Although their compositions are different, all three vaccines give good protection against serious Covid-19 illness and its complications.

If eligible, it is advisable to take whichever vaccine is available as soon as possible, especially those who are elderly and who have other medical conditions.

Some countries have implemented border entry restrictions based on particular vaccine types.

As such, people may not be able to enter certain countries depending on which vaccine they have received, e.g. Saudi Arabia only accepts Haj pilgrims who have received the Pfizer/BioNTech or AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccines.

However, it is expected that as more data becomes available, other vaccines will be approved for international travel purposes.

Dr David Barron is a psychologist and deputy director of the Perdana University Centre for Psychological Medicine. Associate Professor Dr Manoj Valappil is a consultant virologist and Lead for clinical microbiology at Perdana University. This article is courtesy of Perdana University, which is celebrating their 10th anniversary this year. For more information, email starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.
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