Perspective: Overcoming anti-vaccine propaganda requires continuous vigilance

Perspective: Overcoming anti-vaccine propaganda requires continuous vigilance

KUALA LUMPUR: A week or so ago, I received news that a former colleague at a Dubai-based newspaper I had worked for had died of Covid-19. He is the first person I know that has passed away from this disease.

His death hits me close to home.

Information from other former colleagues gave this story: he had gone home to India for a visit in April when the country’s Covid-19 and healthcare crises were coming to a head. He had not been vaccinated as he did not trust the Covid-19 vaccine.

While I have talked to many vaccine-hesitant or anti-vaccine people in the course of covering the pandemic, he was the first person I can say to have died from anti-vaccine misinformation.

In Malaysia, we have our anti-vaccine kooks too. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the country has been battling Covid-19 on two fronts: the actual disease and the spread of misinformation that are now costing lives.

Even as Malaysia sees a record number of cases, with 9,020 new cases reported on May 29, anti-vaxxers, as they are popularly known, have continued their onslaught on social media, WhatsApp and by word of mouth.

Several preachers in Kelantan have been spouting anti-vaccine misinformation, causing the state’s religious authority to threaten action. A doctor in Kedah was found encouraging Muslims not to get vaccinated, claiming the vaccines contained pork products and were therefore, not halal.

(Fact-check: Untrue. Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and AstraZeneca/Oxford University say the vaccines do not contain any animal products. Indonesia certified the Sinovac vaccine as halal. Clerics from Malaysia and Egypt’s Al Azhar University say the issue is largely moot as not taking vaccines would cause greater harm.)

Anti-vaccine misinformation also plays up the side effects by exaggerating or lying outright about their severity to scare people away, which can be effective. Side effects are scary, especially since this is a new vaccine for a new disease, and long-term studies are not available yet.

Is it surprising that people have skipped their vaccine appointment?

The latest figures showed thousands in many states failed to come for their shots, including 14,144 residents in Johor, 10,827 in Kedah and almost 10,000 in Kelantan. Although transportation could be an issue, anti-vaccine propaganda is also as likely. Most were senior citizens.

Lest you think this is a generational issue and restricted to the elderly population, it is not. Millennials and Gen X are also refusing the vaccine.

Some examples: In March, some police officers and personnel in Kelantan reportedly refused the vaccine. So did about 20 percent of caregivers at old folks homes and elderly care centres, according to the Ministry of Health data.

Associate Prof Dr Siti Rozaina Kamsani, head of the Counselling Centre at Universiti Utara Malaysia, said no one is immune to misinformation in the digital age, calling it information overload.

“When people read something, they don’t process it immediately. They read and absorb. And then they will need a moment to analyse what they read. Some can read and process the information. But for many in this fast-paced life, there are so many things that we absorb without thinking about it,” she said.

As of June 9, about 54 percent of the target population have registered for vaccines. The trick is to get the rest of the adults – many of whom are probably receptive to anti-vaccine messaging – registered and vaccinated to achieve herd immunity.

The best way to convince them is to go personal and local.

Dr Siti Rozaina said personal testimonies from people they know would go a long way to convince those who are hesitant about vaccines.

But in the early days of vaccination, personal stories came from videos of frontliners, emergency workers and government leaders, who were prioritised in Phase One of the National Covid-19 Immunisation Programme (PICK).

Then a happy turn of events, ironically, thanks to the anti-vaxxers, helped create many vaccine recipients from all walks of life who could explain and demonstrate in real-time the safety and efficacy of the vaccines to their loved ones.

Malaysia dropped the AstraZeneca vaccine from PICK on April 28 due to exaggerated fears of developing a very rare blood clotting disorder. The government then decided to offer the vaccine to the general public on a first-come, first-served basis instead, to run concurrently with PICK till July.

The response was tremendous. Slots were filled within hours. And once vaccinations began, personal stories rolled in.

Datuk Dr Zainal Ariffin Omar, president of the Malaysian Public Health Physicians’ Association, said the opt-in programme worked well to advance vaccine acceptance.

“It has succeeded in changing vaccine attitudes and confidence, especially among the above-30 population,” he said.

As one of the people who signed up and received the AstraZeneca vaccine when it first became available, I found I managed to convince a few hesitant people in my circle of friends and family.

One of them seemed a bit too interested in my health after the shot; she kept asking me for updates on my side effects and how I felt.

The side effects I experienced were mild and common. Although I did develop a “Covid arm”, a term given for side effects on or around the injection site that only showed up about a week later, the symptoms soon went away.

Later, she confessed she wanted the updates to help her decide whether to get the AZ vaccine as well. Once I passed the two-week mark with no issues, she signed up and got her first shot. The side effects she experienced were a little more serious than mine, but she was over them within two days.

As of May 25, there have been no reports of any adverse reaction linked to any Covid-19 vaccine that required continuous medical care, according to Health Minister Datuk Seri Dr Adham Baba.

In rural areas, Dr Rozaina said adapting the pro-vaccine message to appeal locally was crucial.

One way is to emphasise a return to normalcy, such as showing real-life examples of full classrooms where the teachers and students have been fully vaccinated to appeal to lecturers and college students. Or for senior citizens, convince them with the idea of going for the Haj.

“My friend’s mother at first refused to get the vaccine. But she told her mother, ‘Don’t you want to go for the Haj or umrah? If you do, then you have to get the vaccine because the Saudi Arabian government requires it.’ So she went to get it,” she said.

Other ways include utilising local religious leaders in public health efforts. In several states, imams are delivering pro-vaccine sermons, emphasising everyone’s responsibility to keep themselves and others around them safe and healthy.

Dr Rozaina said in areas such as the northern states, where religion plays a bigger role, this sort of initiative goes a long way in convincing residents to get vaccinated. She added imams could also spearhead registration drives, such as the one by the imam at Al Abbas Islamic Centre in the United Kingdom.

With the healthcare system at the brink of collapse, fear of the disease has pushed interest in vaccinations to new heights. The pushback against anti-vaxxers has also increased with at least two people facing charges in court for posting anti-vaccine lies on their social media.

But pandemic or not, anti-vaccine misinformation will continue. Dr Zainal said people should base their vaccination decisions on science and facts.

“Vaccines have been given to millions of people (around the world) … what we gathered from the latest information, the effectiveness is over 95 percent in terms of protecting people from getting a serious infection that may lead to hospitalisation and death,” he said.

In other words, ignore what the aunties and uncles say on Facebook, or anyone claiming they are an expert without providing proof of expertise. Instead, listen to the ones who have seen and battled the disease upfront and believe it when they say Covid-19 is not a risk anyone wants.

Otherwise, Malaysia will probably see the deadly consequences of anti-vaccine propaganda like my former colleague – someone who was offered the vaccine but refused because he believed in lies, only to catch the disease and die. -Bernama