Vaccine Misinformation: How to Respond

Premier Pulse     October 2021

Belcastro_336x336By Marc Belcastro, DO, system chief medical officer, Premier Health

“What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9. The current divide and politicalization over masking, mandates, and vaccine recommendations is not new. Misinformation is even propagated by our colleagues. How do we respond to misinformation spread by physicians? While not easy, I submit that grace trumps anger. First, a bit of history on anti-vaccination and how the medical field contributed.

The first documented anti-vaccine group was called the National Anti-Vaccination League.  This was formed in 1866 after Britain’s government tried to mandate smallpox vaccinations for its citizens. This sentiment spread to the United States, where a similar anti-vaccination league spread misinformation about the vaccine in the mail. The opponents of the vaccine stated arguments similar to what we hear today. 

These movements gained traction as vaccines were developed during the 20th century, starting with diphtheria in the 1920s until rubella in the early 1970s. Most of the claims were around harm often fueled by poorly run and even false literature. For example, in 1974, a study was published in the Archives of Diseases in Children reporting that 36 children receiving the DTaP vaccine developed neurological problems in the first 24 hours. It was later learned that the researchers did not evaluate the children for months or years after the paper was published. During the 1980s and 1990s, many public figures, including celebrities, appeared on talk shows providing the anti-vaccine movement to an audience of millions. In 1998, a British physician, Andrew Wakefield, claimed the MMR vaccine predisposed children to neurological conditions, including autism. It was later found that his data was fraudulent, and he lost his medical license. A retraction appeared in The Lancet, but it was 12 years later.

In our current century, social media has provided another platform to reach millions and is structured to provide the user with the information they seek. Another shift in our current century is focused on big pharma and conspiracy theories.

The current pandemic has resulted in significant global morbidity and mortality. It has literally taken our health care systems and workers to their knees. Once again, the data is overwhelmingly clear regarding vaccine safety and efficacy for COVID-19, and once again, misinformation abounds, resulting in lives lost. This has taken me on a journey of anger, self-reflection, and finally grace. My grace for the person in no way compromises my ability to share facts and have conversations. In fact, the grace has opened conversations with many resistant individuals when anger could have shut it down. If we can turn even one colleague who is misinformed, lives may be saved. One life is worth our effort to respond with grace.

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