Vaccine misinformation danger


MALAYSIAN authorities are planning to inoculate 30 million people starting next month. But are Malaysians truly ready and sufficiently informed about the vaccination process and its significance?

Since the start of the pandemic, the word “vaccination” has been high on the list in public discourse. Unfortunately, everyday conversations on the topic are often overshadowed by misinformation from hoaxes, fake experts, doctored videos, conspiracy theories and all kinds of rumours and hearsay that populate social media. With most of the world under lockdown, social media has become the main source of information for many people.

Anti-vaccine movements are not new. However, the global urgency to find a way out of the Covid-19 crisis has put the spotlight on vaccination. While the authorities have confidently said that vaccines are the most probable way out of the pandemic, dissenting voices are offering information, views and opinions that may not be scientific but are persuasive enough to create uncertainty over vaccine effectiveness.

Anti-vaccine propaganda works best at confusing the public by placing vaccines within socio-emotional sentiments without substantiating such sentiments with evidence.

India, the second most Covid-19-infected country in the world (after the United States), is experiencing the repercussions of vaccine mis- information. The Indian government is facing resistance as it attempts to rollout a massive vaccine drive. Many of its citizens are refusing to get vaccinated claiming fear of almost anything and everything. Vaccines are said to “cause infertility, autism and even sudden death”, according to some deluded people. Vaccines are even being seen as a political tool used by the government to control the population. In response, the Indian government has had to initiate a vaccine safety campaign to convince its people to accept vaccination. This included getting Bollywood superstars to come out in support of vaccination on social media.

The threat of vaccine misinformation is no joke. Google recently announced that it is launching a US$3mil (RM12.1mil) fund to counter vaccine misinformation. Doc-tors in Canada initiated a nationwide campaign to highlight vaccine safety while scientists in Britain are propagating a “psychological vaccine”, a term used to describe information campaigns against the rise of fake news and vaccine misinformation.

What can Malaysia learn from these experiences? Just like the rest of the world, Malaysians are increasingly being pushed down the anti-vaccination rabbit hole. How can the authorities, relevant bodies and responsible individuals respond to and dispel distrust in vaccines?

It is time that messages about Covid-19 threats are accompanied with information on vaccine safety and effectiveness. Government officials, scientists and healthcare professionals need to be the trusted voices that shape positive public attitudes toward vaccination.

Citizens must be told that getting themselves vaccinated is not just a personal health decision but also a responsibility towards humanity. More positive and rational vaccine- related messages must flood social media so that the influx of fake news and misinformation can be drowned out.

DR SHAFIZAN MOHAMED

Communication and Media Centre, International Islamic University Malaysia

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