VACCINE HESITANCY — the reluctance of people to get inoculated against disease — was a public health difficulty before the pandemic. Now it has grown more serious just when everyone is looking to vaccines to save the day. Doubts and suspicions, once stirred by a small phalanx of activists, have become more widespread, in part in response to President Trump’s unrealistic promises to rush a coronavirus vaccine out before Election Day.
It is time for less hyperventilating and more clear thinking about vaccines. When proven safe and effective, they save lives. Almost certainly, there will not be a vaccine before the election, and not for months afterward. Vaccine development, trials and manufacturing are fraught with risk. There are failures. Don’t be alarmed. Vaccines can work.
The growing doubts were reported this week in a new Gallup poll that asked: If a vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration were available right now at no cost, would you get vaccinated? Only 50 percent said yes, a sharp drop-off from 66 percent in July and 61 percent in August. A big fall in confidence came among Democrats, from 78 percent responding yes in August to only 53 percent at the end of September, while Republican confidence increased from 37 percent to 49 percent. The survey, conducted Sept. 14 to 27, is based on responses from 2,730 adults, 18 years and older.
The global effort to find, test and manufacture a vaccine in record time, given the virus death toll of more than 1 million around the world, is both necessary and extraordinary; it has already involved more brainpower and resources than ever before. News media coverage of every speed bump has clearly heightened anxiety. But Mr. Trump went off the rails with outlandish promises to have a vaccine ready by Election Day or soon thereafter. “We essentially have it — we will be announcing it soon,” he said last month. Gallup said this rhetoric “raised concerns” about vaccine safety and effectiveness; a recent CNN poll showed a similar trend, without mentioning a time frame. Black and Hispanic Americans, traditionally underserved by health care, show even greater hesitancy to get vaccinated against the coronavirus than Whites, according to a May survey by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Before the pandemic, the anti-vaccination movement used social media to spread suspicions and distrust. Facebook has taken steps in recent days to fight the problem, though it will undoubtedly have to do more.
In the 2019-2020 flu season, 51.8 percent of Americans 6 months and older were vaccinated. Child vaccination rates in the United States for measles, mumps, rubella, polio and chickenpox were above 90 percent in 2017. Vaccine hesitancy is not a new problem but is more urgent than ever. A credible, concerted effort must be made to boost confidence in vaccines that are proven safe and efficacious against the coronavirus. Such a campaign must be based on science and medicine, leaving political shenanigans behind.