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Why developing a COVID-19 vaccine is only part of the struggle

Eric Stirgus, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Health & Fitness

Dr. Lilly Immergluck last week gave what she called "the vaccine lecture" to a group of Morehouse School of Medicine students.

Immergluck, a pediatrician, infectious disease specialist and an assistant professor at the Atlanta school since 2005, talks each year to all students there about how vaccines have helped control the spread of the measles and other diseases. Part of her goal is to encourage students to share with patients -- and their communities -- the effectiveness of vaccines, a conversation that's taken on greater importance as researchers work on a COVID-19 vaccine.

"We don't know where (we are on vaccine research), but we need to be informed," Immergluck said in a telephone interview.

Public health experts and local doctors are worried many Americans won't take a vaccine once it's ready. Several polls show about 60% of Americans, at most, would be vaccinated while the rest say they won't or are unsure.

Although a vaccine is likely months, or a year away from being approved, the information wars have begun over the effectiveness of a vaccine. Some social media platforms, such as YouTube, earlier this month removed from their sites "Plandemic," a short film blaming the outbreak of the disease on the World Health Organization and claiming the flu vaccine increases chances of getting COVID-19. Critics said the film was full of misinformation, but some anti-vaccination activists are continuing to find ways to repost it.

Most communication work on the pro-vaccine front is currently being done by educators and experts instead of public health organizations. Dr. Scott Ratzan, a longtime public health communications expert who is a guest lecturer at the City University of New York, is working with Emory University professor Dr. Ruth Parker on at least one potential public awareness campaign and exploring other ideas with experts worldwide.

 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not respond to several requests for comment. The U.S. Health & Human Services Department did not respond to an email request for comment.

The Georgia Department of Public Health said in a statement it speaks frequently about the importance of vaccines, particularly for the flu. For now, though, "We have not done anything promoting a COVID-19 vaccine as we don't know enough about it yet."

Vaccine hesitancy and skepticism isn't new. The arguments against vaccination in 18th-century Europe, according to an infographic on the Measles Rubella Initiative website, included concerns about safety, a general distrust of medicine or that smallpox was God's punishment and shouldn't be treated. In recent years, the vaccination debate has focused largely on influenza shots and measles vaccinations, as several states with outbreaks last year tried to tighten exemptions to lower infection rates.

Glen Nowak, a former CDC communications director who now runs the University of Georgia's journalism and mass communication Center for Health & Risk Communication, says there are pockets of vaccine hesitancy among conservatives who don't trust government and some progressives worried about safety. Nowak believes a public campaign is critical.

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