The insidious agenda of anti-vaccine activism and supporters of so-called “health freedom” has led to hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths. Inexplicably, anti-vaccine activism extends well beyond novel Covid-19 vaccines. It includes childhood vaccines that have been around for many decades.
Vaccines of all kinds prevent or mitigate illnesses that would have killed and maimed millions. Vaccines save lives. You wouldn’t know this if you listen to the likes of Congresswoman, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who repeatedly makes statements such as these on Twitter:
“I demand an IMMEDIATE investigation into Covid vaccines and the dramatic increase of people dying suddenly!”
Here, Greene was referencing the death of Lynette Hardaway, also known as “Diamond,” of the political duo “Diamond and Silk.” Ms. Hardaway died last week at the age of 51. The cause of Hardaway death is not known. It’s also unknown whether she was even vaccinated against Covid-19.
The phrase “died suddenly” has become a theme among anti-vaxxers. Similarly, reprehensible slogans, such as “Fauci lied. People died,” get bandied about. They reflect a peculiar unsupported belief that the Covid-19 vaccine causes sudden heart attacks.
Americans’ weird obsession with conspiracies
All of this isn’t new. Americans have long had a bizarre obsession with conspiracies and alternate facts, especially in regard to science and public health, but also politics.
Anti-science runs deep in the U.S., which is ironic given how prolific U.S.-based scientific discoveries and innovations are.
According to a 2014 paper in the American Journal of Political Science, roughly 50% of Americans believe in at least one disproven conspiracy theory. Surely, that number has increased in the past 9 years.
When I lived and worked in Europe for many years, I noticed that there was certainly an anti-science fringe. But, it invariably remained very much on the periphery. There was mostly a general consensus around science and a trust in scientists, employed in both the public and private sectors.
In the U.S. that consensus has been crumbling and is in danger of falling apart altogether. There are numerous conspiracy theories out there, fueled by the internet and social media. Urban myths have bled into the mainstream, particularly around Covid-19. First, it was a hoax. Then, it was thought to be an instrument of the surveillance state. Remember the folks who said that the vaccine came equipped with a microchip to keep track of the vaccinated. And now “diedsuddenly” has become a hashtag, a rallying cry for an increasingly militant faction of vaccine skeptics. The kooks have been normalized. And that’s a massive problem.
We’re living in a post-truth era, meaning objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. As the astute veteran journalist Marvin Kalb says, without a commonly accepted understanding of basic facts on which we base our government’s decisions, how do we maintain and then sustain a viable, functioning society?
In the 19th century, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim posited the idea that a “social fact” is not necessarily true, but rather it is what the community – or at least a segment of it – believes to be true. Even if evidence demonstrates this “fact” to be untrue, it’ll make no difference to the true believers.
Preparing for the next pandemic
Alternate facts aren’t the only reason for the public’s skepticism. Communicating objective evidence to the public has been problematic. And not just messaging by public health officials or politicians. Vaccine makers like Pfizer have done a poor job. In the winter and spring of 2021, the CEO of Pfizer, Albert Bourla, posted messages on social media declaring that the Covid-19 vaccine would stop transmission. On April 1, 2021, for instance, Bourla tweeted “Excited to share that updated analysis from our Phase 3 study with BioNTech also showed that our Covid-19 vaccine was 100% effective in preventing Covid-19 cases in South Africa. 100%!”
That was a mistake, which ultimately bred mistrust. It also flew in the face of what the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had said in December, 2020, based on data submitted by Pfizer. The FDA stated:
“At this time, data are not available to make a determination about how long the vaccine will provide protection, nor is there evidence that the vaccine prevents transmission of SARS-CoV-2 from person to person.”
On the treatment Paxvlovid, Bourla again committed an unforced error. After reports indicated that some patients who took Paxlovid (nirmatrelvir/ritonavir) rebounded and started feeling symptoms again, the CEO told Bloomberg that patients can take another course, “like you do with antibiotics.” The FDA promptly rebuked Bourla’s proposed solution.
And so, preparing for the next pandemic implies that all who have a vested interest in public health – from public health agencies to scientists to drug and vaccine manufacturers – will have to fight anti-science head-on with honesty and much better communication skills.
They will have to explain science-based decisions to the public in a nuanced way that allays fears of government overreach. Here, they must walk a fine line when rebutting the narrative of disinformation campaigns, as run, for example, by the anti-vaccine zealots. Don’t oversell. Inform the public dispassionately on both the benefits – to individuals and society as a whole – and side effects and potential risks, however slight, of vaccines and treatments. Be willing to debate which age (and other) groups stand to benefit most from vaccines, and which least.
In this regard, it’s imperative that policymakers develop a long-term pandemic preparedness strategy that is evidence-based, continually educates the population, and strives for what the former World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan calls “health security.” Chan asserted that “respiratory pathogens with pandemic potential pose an existential threat as serious as climate change, environmental degradation and nuclear war.” Underscoring Chan’s point, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, Technical Lead of the WHO’s Covid-19 Response, warned that “pandemic preparedness and readiness is a constant. It doesn’t begin, it doesn’t end. There is no peacetime.” And, echoing the warnings issued by Chan and Van Kerkhove, Dr. Scott Gottlieb wrote in his book, Uncontrolled Spread, why we must view public health preparedness through the lens of national security.
Combating the anti-science crusade, though, will be a daunting task, as Dr. Peter Hotez, Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, lays out in his new book, The Deadly Rise of Anti-Science: How Health Freedom Propaganda Endangers the World.
Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, politicians have sowed doubts about vaccine safety and efficacy among constituents. This anti-vaccine rhetoric has contributed to hundreds of thousands of preventable Covid-19 fatalities; what Dr. Peter Hotez calls “death by anti-science.”
The U.S. record on Covid-19 is to be lamented. While there are multiple reasons for the mediocre showing compared to its peers, gaps in vaccination and booster coverage played an important role. In turn, this has contributed to the continued, decade-long troubling decline in life expectancy.
What’s disturbing is that public health preparedness in the U.S. faces stronger headwinds than it did prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. For one thing, it appears that U.S. legislators are no longer prioritizing efforts to prepare for the next pandemic. Some might be shocked by this, in light of what has transpired over the last three years. But the apathy displayed by many lawmakers is consistent with decades of neglect of public health, which has led to chronic underfunding, at the local, state, and federal levels.
At a bare minimum, public health departments at the local, state, and federal levels ought to be revitalized. However, this will be tremendously difficult in the face of entrenched opposition to public health interventions. The majority of states curtailed public health powers amid the Covid-19 pandemic. In these states, legislators have rolled back the capacities which state and local officials use to protect the public against infectious diseases.
Governor DeSantis of Florida, in particular, is determined to curb public health authority, even in the event of the next infectious disease emergency. He recently announced a series of policy proposals that would permanently prevent public health authorities from instituting outbreak mitigation measures as well as vaccine mandates.
The harsh reality is that when our already depleted public health agencies face further cuts, or have their already limited powers curtailed, this seriously undermines the nation’s health.