I recently watched a press conference by the UK medicines regulatory authority, announcing their approval of the new Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine for Covid-19.
The presentation went into some detail, going step-by-step through the data from the trials of the vaccine in the UK, USA, Brazil and South Africa, showing how it had been reviewed by independent scientists and shown to be safe and broadly effective.
The panel presenting the data consisted of a white British woman, a Chinese man, and a man of Middle-Eastern descent. They spent more than an hour answering questions from the media.
It did not look like the widespread caricature of vaccine scientists that you read about on the Internet these days – quacks endangering our lives with unproven therapies or pushing the vile agendas of imperialist governments.
Indeed, some of the baseless claims about vaccines on the Internet have gotten so out of control that they have put public health at risk.
Measles has returned to many parts of the US and Europe, having not been seen in a generation, because some Americans and Europeans have been refusing a vaccine widely proved to be one of the safest.
In 1998, medical researcher Andrew Wakefield and 12 of his colleagues published a paper in the scientific journal The Lancet. This article suggested that the measles vaccine may predispose children to autism. The data in the article was almost immediately questioned by other scientists and the article was later withdrawn by the journal.
An investigation found that Wakefield had multiple undeclared conflicts of interest, had manipulated evidence and outright falsified some information.
But, as the old saying goes, a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting its pants on. The damage had been done and an ‘anti-vaccination movement’ had started.
As South African comedian Trevor Noah has said, measles was ‘back by popular demand’.
Famously, the CIA made matters worse by posing as vaccinators in Pakistan while looking for Osama bin Laden.
But to suggest that most vaccination efforts are somehow a front for Western spying and subterfuge is tantamount to defamation.
One of the saddest things about this so-called anti-vax movement is how it has been picked up by some in the ‘natural health’ community. Sad because the very vaccines they bash ARE natural health. Many drugs damage the body as much as the diseases and cancers they attack. But vaccines work with the body, using the body’s natural capacity for learning to train our natural immune systems to fight a virus.
It’s also sad that anti-vaccination agendas are often promoted by the most privileged.
We rich folk like to think that, since measles, Covid-19, etc, can be cured, and since we will always get a doctor’s appointment, we may as well avoid any possible side effects of the vaccine by not taking it.
What this ignores is that we privileged folk will have access to good health care if we get the virus, but those we infect will not.
Some people can’t be vaccinated – there are rare allergies to some of the ingredients; vaccines often cannot be given to children below a certain age; some are too poor to afford it, or even to afford the taxi to the hospital. Those of us who are privileged enough to access a vaccine, by taking the shot, help protect those who are not.
Covid-19 is not going to be defeated by vaccines alone.
Mask-wearing and hand-sanitising are going to be with us for a long time, and it would be good to continue these healthy behaviours even when Covid-19 is no more.
The virus has exposed the folly of under-investment in public health and governments must do more to put their money where their mouths are.
But vaccines are an important piece of the puzzle. By protecting the most vulnerable and beginning to reduce the spread of the virus, they give our health systems a fighting chance.
The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is especially important because, unlike some other Covid-19 vaccines which need to be kept at extremely cold temperatures, this one can safely be stored in a normal fridge, opening up the possibility of its distribution in rural and underdeveloped parts of the world.
I certainly hope Namibia will procure Covid-19 vaccines in due time. We should all fight for our country to get access to these lifesaving medicines as soon as possible. When we do, I will certainly go for my jab. And you should, too.
Hugh Ellis is a Namibian citizen and senior lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. In 2007 and 2008 he was communication officer with responsibility for pandemic influenza communication at UNICEF Namibia. The views he expresses here are personal views. Follow his blog at http://ellishugh.wordpress.com