As an autism researcher, I’ve dealt with anti-vax misinformation for years. Here’s how we can combat it during the COVID vaccine rollout

covid 19 vaccine drive
Diana Carolina, a pharmacist at Memorial Healthcare System, receives a Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine at Memorial Healthcare System, on December 14, 2020 in Miramar, Florida.

  • Anti-vax misinformation has spread dangerously far and wide.
  • We have a social responsibility to recognize and call it out, especially amidst COVID-19 vaccinations.
  • Here’s how to do so.
  • Lior Brimberg, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Institute of Molecular Medicine at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

We have all seen the false headlines stating that vaccinations cause autism. This very loud and misinformed fake news has become the fuel for the ever-growing firestorm of the anti-vaccination movement and disbelief around vaccines in general. That misinformation has now dangerously spread to the discussion of the impending COVID-19 vaccine.

The anti-vax movement threatens the health and well-being of the global population. There is skepticism swirling around the COVID-19 vaccines; a recent Kaiser Health Covid-19 Monitor poll reports that 27% of Americans) say they definitely or probably would not get a coronavirus vaccine. As a scientist who has confronted the anti-vax movement head-on, this statistic is alarming.

For more than a decade, my research has focused on understanding how antibodies in moms-to-be could interfere with fetal development and may even lead to autism. Misled parents and so-called experts continue to spread misinformation and unsubstantiated claims that routine vaccines lead to autism, which all stemmed from a fraudulent and now-debunked research study. However, the damage has been done. This fake news continues to flood the internet, causing serious confusion for parents trying to navigate parenthood and puts our youth at serious risk of getting life-threatening illnesses like mumps and measles, polio, and more recently whooping cough. Now, in the middle of a global health pandemic, this is not the time for confusion.

While some hesitation is to be expected, especially in any new vaccine, everyone must understand the process and care that took place in developing the COVID-19 vaccines and have faith in the science and the federal regulations. The Food and Drug Administration recently approved Pfizer’s vaccine through an Emergency Use Authorization. It was a momentous occasion – and I take a special pride to be part of Northwell Health, who delivered the first dose in America – to see that injection of hope. It’s been weeks since that first injection, with thousands more frontline workers across the nation having received it, and it’s up to us now to trust it even more.

We have a social responsibility to the millions who were let go from work because of the pandemic, to our kids who are socially and educationally deprived, to the elderly and at risk populations who are concerned for their daily life, and for the hundreds of thousands who lost their lives.

How do we combat this ever-growing chorus of vaccine naysayers?

First, it all comes down to communication. Our local, state, and federal officials have been constantly emphasizing the need to wear masks, social distance, and the importance of proper hygiene, which are all critical in slowing the spread of the virus. While we continue to do just that, it is the time for the media to pivot to vaccine effectiveness, rollout plans, and potential side effects. The messages need to come from local, state and the national level, including influential community leaders, faith-based organizations and anyone with a megaphone to promote the safety and efficacy of these vaccines.

Second, we must explain the science. As we have seen with the confusion around autism, if people don’t understand the basics of what a vaccine is or does, then of course, this is bound to lead to distrust. It seems like scientists developed these COVID-19 vaccines in a pressure cooker, and in a sense, they did. However, it is imperative to communicate all of the safety, regulatory and strict guidelines that were adhered to, just as any other drug would have been. One of the main differences in the development of the COVID-19 vaccines, because of the federal initiative of “Operation Warp Speed,” in comparison to others, each phase of the drug testing and manufacturing were simultaneous. While a gamble for the drug manufacturers, if the vaccines’ trials showed it was unsafe, all of those produced vials would be useless; this has allowed for a new vaccine to be funded, tested, and created in less than a year.

We need to have a clear understanding of the vaccine. The RNA based platforms are not “novel” methods as the media like to present it and in fact has been studied since 1990s. People need to be comforted in knowing that this science has been tested before.

We also need to understand how it was tested and who should get it. For example, I am hearing from parents that they will not vaccinate their kids, because they do not trust the safety of the vaccine. The fact is that the vaccines have not been tested in kids, and won’t be offered to them at this moment. This is true to any population which has not been included in the clinical trials, including pregnant women. 

Third, we should encourage questions. Questions are good – they are what drive our science. Will the vaccine hurt? Why do I need two shots? How was it developed? While it is hard to sway someone’s beliefs, informed answers from medical experts and trusted community leaders will help to achieve some level of comfort and understanding. Even doctors and vaccinators need to be educated on the various vaccines and details around it – and they are learning all of the specifics now, as the drug companies continue to release their clinical trial data. While we may not have all the answers right now – medical professionals and science experts have everyone’ health and safety in mind, including their own.

And finally, it’s important for you to make an effort, and stay in the know. Doctors, health systems, and the media need to report on the numbers of those vaccinated, the effects – both the positives and negatives outcomes – as the vaccines rollout. This continuous update of data will empower more people who may have been on the fence around taking the vaccine to get it. There needs to be a vaccine movement, a groundswell of support from every community, every neighborhood in order for all of us to receive the vaccine’s benefits.

This is a difficult time.  It seems like we were all asked to grasp concepts like herd immunity, infectious disease, and vaccine development in less than a year. It’s not easy, but if we trust in the science, trust in the facts, and trust in the leaders making the decisions, we will have the opportunity to return to a time of normalcy, very, very soon. 

Lior Brimberg, PhD, is an assistant professor at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research, whose research focus centers around the role of the in utero environment and specifically maternal brain auto-antibodies in autism.

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