We also must immunize ourselves against half-truths and politics

  • Javeed Akhter

    Javeed Akhter

By Javeed Akhter
Guest Columnist
Posted9/16/2020 1:00 AM

If recent surveys are correct a substantial number of Americans may decide not to take one of the new coronavirus vaccines that may soon become available. This would be disastrous. It would be partly due to the anti-Vaxxer trend in our country and partly because of the unfortunate politicization of the new coronavirus vaccine research and development by the administration.

Surveys show about 50% of people in the United States are committed to receiving a corona vaccine, with a quarter wavering and the remaining quarter definite in not taking it. The vaccine acceptance is lowest among African Americans. About 40% said they would not take the vaccine. From Tuskegee to Flint and the disparity in medical outcomes for African Americans in our medical system, this distrust is understandable. Unfortunately, African Americans have disproportionately large numbers of deaths from COVID-19.


Protection against any infection depends both on personal immunity as well as the immunity of almost all of your neighbors, or herd immunity. If approximately 25% of people refuse vaccination, then the protection against coronavirus would be partial at best and the outlook for getting back to normal life anytime soon would be uncertain.

As a physician trained in immunology, I know how important vaccinations are. Our immune system is exquisitely balanced and infinitely complex. It learns from previous encounters with a micro-organism either in nature or through vaccination. The memory it acquires through B lymphocytes and T lymphocytes circulating in the blood helps kill or contain a subsequent encounter with the same or similar microbe. If the immune system is defective from birth or is suppressed from medications, it may not carry immunity to a microbe, allowing the infection to run rampant in the body. There is solid data on benefits and risks of vaccines in use and, yes, there are rare occasions when vaccination should not be given. An example would be a live viral vaccine in an individual with a compromised T lymphocyte immune system.

One reason for the increase in refusal to take any vaccine is the internet; it is playing a particularly evil role. It has elevated the troll to an influencer. There are many sites that have given access to purveyors of semi-truths and even falsehoods. Free speech has produced volumes of false speech.

The mixed messaging from President Trump and his administration has made things worse for the coronavirus vaccines. On the one hand, the administration has long downplayed the seriousness of the virus and on the other, it is quick in taking credit for the rapid rate of manufacturing the vaccine. When Health Secretary Alex Azar was asked recently about the vaccine, the first words out of his mouth were praise "for our great leader." That sounds exactly like propaganda heard in an authoritarian country. The frequency of claims that a vaccine may be available before Nov. 3 smacks of political, not scientific, timing and suggests it is being rushed. We need a vaccine that has been carefully studied not rushed.

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Diminishing the confidence further is the way the Federal Drug Administration has acted recently under Dr. Stephen Hahn. Succumbing to pressure from the White House, the FDA approved hydroxychloroquine use, and then retracted it. The FDA has overstated the benefits of convalescent plasma. Can the FDA be trusted in giving an unbiased opinion and standing up to pressure from the administration?

Realizing they are facing a serious crisis in confidence about the coronavirus vaccines, a gaggle of drug company heads made a pledge that they will not apply for approval of their vaccine unless it is proven safe and effective. Of course, they should not. Their press conference sounded like the old "trust me" ploy. It would have been better for these salesmen to have left the science to scientists.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is aware of this challenge of increasing "vaccine confidence." Social scientists urge robust campaigns that include personal messages and storytelling. We need to use the same tools the anti-vaxxers are using to peddle their half-truths.

The world has eliminated smallpox, diphtheria, tetanus, with rare exceptions polio and many other infectious diseases. We are a nation that has produced innumerable medical inventions and cures and continues to do so.

One of the vaccines in production is using the messenger RNA of the virus, which if effective may change how vaccines are made in the future. We could and should be leaders in vaccine research and vaccination use. This is possible only if we simultaneously produce an effective vaccine and immunize ourselves against half-truths and political pressure that are as dangerous to our health as any original infection.

• Javeed Akhter is a physician and freelance writer from Oakbrook.

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