By Chris Adams

Aug. 4, 2020 – Scientists around the world are racing to produce a coronavirus vaccine, but more than a quarter of the U.S. population say they would not take one.

Recent surveys on what is known as “vaccine hesitancy” indicate that nearly one in 15 U.S. parents were reluctant to give their children routine vaccines and more than one in four were hesitant about the flu vaccine, Dr. Walter Orenstein of Emory University. In a briefing for National Press Foundation fellows, Orenstein, Dr. Margot Savoy of Temple University and author Seth Mnookin of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology described the anti-vaccination movement that has taken hold in segments of the population and negated some of the most significant scientific advances of the past century.

Savoy admits to being perplexed that the fight for vaccination must be waged at all. She is chair and associate professor of the Department of Family and Community Medicine at Temple’s Lewis Katz School of Medicine.

“I thought that when the aliens came, that we would all band together and fight the alien. And to me, COVID was the alien,” she said. “I am actually shocked that we have to fight with people about putting on a mask. So from my perspective, I'm not convinced that telling people getting a vaccine will save your neighbor will make any difference.”

Orenstein, who before Emory had a long career as a vaccine specialist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said vaccine hesitancy doesn’t only cover people with outright hostility to vaccination but also those motivated by “complacency, convenience and confidence.”

What’s know as “vaccine uptake” in the population is never 100%, but it does need to be uniformly high to help prevent outbreaks of diseases, he said. There’s an implicit bargain members of the public make with each other – nearly everybody gets vaccinated to minimize the spread of disease among the few who don’t. That bargain has broken down in pockets of the country, allowing some diseases to make a comeback.

Savoy described a spectrum of views vaccination, from those who have no hesitation at all about them to those “who even if you gave them all the money in the world, they're still not going to let you come anywhere near them with a vaccine.”

“But the vast majority of patients and folks in the world don't fall in either one of those groups – they kind of fall in the middle,” she said.

Mnookin noted that the norm in the U.S. is still “overwhelmingly that parents vaccinate their kids, even parents who have some questions about it.” Uptake rates are over 90% for most vaccine-preventable diseases in the country.

But there is a concern that the strength and social media savvy of people opposed to vaccines for safety or other reasons will lessen the effectiveness of any coronavirus vaccine. A 2020 Pew Research Center poll that found 72% of American say they would definitely or probably get a coronavirus vaccine if one were available, while 27% say they would not.

Savoy said it is in doctors’ offices around the globe that those hesitant to do so need be convinced – sometimes gently, often over multiple visits – that getting vaccinated is in their interests, as well as society’s. Those are often time-consuming conversations not covered by most health insurance providers. In the average 15-minute visit, a family doctor has to deal with three or four other patient health concerns. Moreover, small primary care practices often need to front the money to purchase and store vaccines, not knowing if they will ultimately be reimbursed. That can make vaccination a break-even or money-losing proposition for the health care provider.

The media must accurately explain the reality of vaccination, said Mnookin, whose book “The Panic Virus” detailed how a now-discredited medical study fueled the vaccines-cause-autism movement of the 2000s. While the scientific community never wavered in its assessment that vaccines are safe, the journalistic convention that “there are two-sides-to-every-story” popularized the flawed research.

“What we should be striving to do as journalists is not presenting things in an on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand framework when there aren't two hands,” Mnookin said. “… It essentially muddies the water and turns it back into a, ‘I say this, you say this, who knows what’s right? Let’s throw up our hands and go with our instincts.’”

The media also have an important role to play in educating the public about bad medical outcomes.

“People lack an understanding of how to determine whether an adverse event following vaccination is causally related or coincidentally related,” Orenstein said. Journalists can help by explaining the difference, he said.