The UK has just approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for rollout. This is a major development in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and comes at the end of a year that has been life-changing for all of us.
Vaccines are to this day the most effective way to slow down the transmission of a virus. However, what is crucial to understand is that their effectiveness depends on a significant number of people taking them; the threshold necessary to trigger ‘herd immunity’ is somewhere between 60% and 75% of the population, according to a paper published in October in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and reported in the Guardian. What this means is that it is simply not enough to individually take the jab (or jabs, most likely) and go back to our lives, business as usual. We need to get immunised as a community.
There have been fears of growing vaccine scepticism, especially in relation to Covid-19 vaccines, often ignited by conspiracy theories spread on the Internet. This is reflected in my personal experience as well. For any social media post from an official government account that talks about vaccination, there are a substantial amount of comments ranging from suspicion to creative yet baseless claims.
In order to build trust in the vaccines, NHS England are reportedly planning a campaign with celebrities and social media influencers. The campaign will also have doctors addressing the public on TV and radio, and at a more local level, religious and community leaders will be involved, in an effort to target all sectors of the population, including ethnic minorities.
This initiative is very encouraging, for a number of reasons. The first one is that social media such as Facebook have played a major role in the spread of misinformation and the rise of anti-vax conspiracy theories; countering those messages with positive, research-based communications from celebrities and influencers means using the same technology in a much more constructive way, exploiting the algorithm to reach as many people as possible. At the same time, having experts talking on TV, as well as religious leaders addressing their local communities, means breaking those information ‘bubbles’ that we often see on social media, allowing the public to form an opinion based on various sources.
Furthermore, there is no mention of politicians in this campaign, which is crucial. In my opinion, part of the scepticism around both the pandemic and the vaccines stems from this government’s ambiguous messages and, quite frankly, lack of clear leadership at times. We need to take the conversation away from Downing Street and its U-turns, away from the politics: this is a matter of public health.
Finally, we must take into account the importance of data and evidence. People’s concerns cannot simply be dismissed; if we want to build trust, it is essential to disclose all the relevant data and keep the public informed at all times. This can be done by circulating more messages about the clinical trials, how many people were involved, how a vaccine gets official approval and why it is safe to take. We can do this on an individual level as well, by doing our own research first, and then having those difficult but necessary conversations with friends or acquaintances who show scepticism.
We may not know for how long this coronavirus is going to be around. But if we build and cultivate trust as a community, we can at least make the most of what science has to offer.
By Giulio Bajona
Featured Image source: The Financial Times