Over the course of my lifetime, I have heard stories about parents who do not want to vaccinate their children; the so-called “anti-vaxxers” who either do not see the need to vaccinate or just do not want to. For some, this decision comes through a disbelief in vaccines – the idea that they do not work. For others, this choice comes about due to concern that the risks are significantly high enough to warrant hesitancy. A very small percentage even believe that vaccines are not vaccines at all, but secretly concocted government serums designed to spy on the population. Each and every one of these viewpoints has arisen in the past year in response to the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines around the world. To many, the anti-vaxxer population may seem uninformed and arrogant, and willing participants in the spread of a deadly virus. People are entitled to their view, but there are arguments based in psychology to suggest that vaccine hesitancy is not simply the result of ignorance or wanting to see conspiracy where it is not.
The hesitancy that many people have regarding the new COVID-19 vaccinations are, in some cases, the direct result of availability bias. This is a psychological term for when people use the information most readily available to them. For example, many people dislike flying, as they recall seeing news reports of plane crashes, but statistically flying is the safest way to travel, and people would be more at risk driving to the airport than flying out of it. The news does not report on every safe flight however, so people’s view becomes biased by the information available to them. The same phenomenon occurs with vaccination programmes for disease. The Polio vaccine was invented in the 1950s, and thanks to widespread vaccination programmes, some countries have been Polio-free for a considerable length of time. As a result of this huge advancement in medicine, Polio became a thing of the past and an invisible disease to most people in the first world. People stopped worrying about it. Why worry about something that is not going to happen right?
Wrong. The problem with the first world enjoying its newfound freedom from disease is that people become complacent. After a while, as the population gets replaced, people do not even remember Polio let alone recall seeing it change people’s lives. A while after that, some begin to ask, “why are we even putting these things in our bodies? I have never seen the benefit of it”. Vexingly, the chances are that if a handful of people thought that way, they would be right. If a completely unvaccinated person were to roam freely in an advanced nation, the chances of them contracting a disease like Polio or Rubella are marginal at best. But this is not because vaccines are not needed, this is because individuals are protected by herd immunity. Since the majority of the population in an advanced nation is vaccinated, they most likely do not have the diseases which you are not defended against. That means your risk of infection is still low, even if you are an anti-vaxxer.
In a perfect world, everyone would be able to vaccinate. In a near-perfect world, the number of anti-vaxxers would remain a handful of people. Our world, however, is fast becoming an imperfect reality. In an era where people’s thoughts can travel at light-speed via the internet, the handful is beginning to grow. The message that vaccines are not needed is travelling faster than the Coronavirus itself and it must be halted.
The vaccine paradox is difficult to overcome, and people cannot be blamed for their hesitancy, particularly following the exaggerated, and in some cases unofficial, stories concerning vaccination risks. Recently, it was reported that rare blood clotting abnormalities were being seen in patients following their inoculation. This risk was estimated by the government to be ‘extremely rare’ and was later confirmed to be around 4 in 1,000,000 for the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. This number was compared to the increased risk of blood clotting due to contracting COVID-19 itself and it was found that the risk due to contracting Coronavirus was 39 in 1,000,000. This means that, although the media are correct in stating that there is an increased risk of blood clotting from a COVID-19 vaccine, this risk is infinitesimally small, and you would do much worse by contracting the virus itself. In fact, if everyone in the UK was immunized with the Pfizer vaccine and this proportion was representative, only 267 people would be at risk of abnormal clotting.
For most people, the benefits of being vaccinated against COVID-19 far outweigh the risks. This is true of most vaccines in the modern world today. People are right to be wary of putting things in their bodies and it is this instinct that ensured humans did not die out long ago because they kept eating poisonous berries. Nevertheless, the deep-rooted belief that you are being told the truth has been the downfall of a great many people in history and while wariness is a good thing, universal scepticism is not. The internet is a dangerous place to roam without the protection of reason to defend yourself. In some cases, it is not dangerous to trust the science and rely on the well-informed conclusions that have been built up over time. In others, you should ensure that the ground is firm before you decide to rest your beliefs upon it – it may just crumble if you are not careful.
Written by Isaac Knowles
Isaac Knowles is a columnist at DecipherGrey.