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Op-Ed: State of the vax — Lousy communication is helping anti-vaxxers and sabotaging global immunization

The story with the COVID vax is simple. Risk getting very sick or not.

Covid: Delta doubles hospital risk vs Alpha variant
Multiple studies have shown that full vaccination prevents infection with symptoms and hospitalisation, for both Alpha and Delta variants - Copyright AFP John OKUNYOMIH
Multiple studies have shown that full vaccination prevents infection with symptoms and hospitalisation, for both Alpha and Delta variants - Copyright AFP John OKUNYOMIH

The story with the COVID vax is simple. Risk getting very sick or not. According to global news headlines, this very basic single issue is getting lost. It’s all about politics. No, it isn’t. This is about common sense.

You’d never guess that reading the news. Instead of absolute basic Communications 101 – A single simple accurate message, there are millions of messages. Many messages are about sub-issues, lost in translation, or simply wrong in fact.  

This article is symptomatic, excuse the pun, about messaging. “Nearly a third of adults say they are very unlikely to get their children vaccinated for COVID 19”. The survey was done by the American Pediatrics Association. This level of irresponsibility, including making kids vectors for spreading a dangerous virus, is based entirely on media messages.

Consider a few things here:

  1. Nearly all Western adults (well over 95%) have been routinely vaccinated as kids against a virtual dictionary of serious diseases for generations. That includes just about all anti-vaxxers …Yet so many of these people say other people shouldn’t get vaccinated. What, exactly, is credible about this?
  2. This pandemic has killed 4.7 million people including over 700,000 Americans, and caused many more (estimates vary for Long COVID) to have long-term debilitating medical conditions. Yet America is the center of anti-vaxx propaganda, thanks entirely to politics.
  3. Global immunization against diseases, that is, worldwide immunization, is 83%. That’s a huge majority, including all Third World countries. The rate has recently decreased thanks in part to anti-vaxx propaganda. That means you’re a bit more likely to get a disease, geniuses.
  4. Local/specific vaccinations include tetanus shots if you get a puncture wound. No debate at all there.
  5. Incidents of any issues at all with vaccinations are extremely rare. Fact- Over 6 billion COVID jabs have resulted in a microscopic number of cases of negative conditions arising from vaccination and even fewer fatalities. You’re in more danger of a shark attack than an negative issue with vaccination.
  6. In most advanced countries, your chances of getting TB, diphtheria, polio, smallpox, and other very dangerous diseases which were quite common in the 1950s are now effectively non-existent. That’s entirely due to vaccinations. Don’t agree? Fine. Prove otherwise. You won’t, because those are the facts.

About 10 years ago, anti-vaxxers were usually religious nuts or tinfoil hat people. Now it’s mainstream? Why? Easy answer – Add any extras to polarized politics, and people instantly take sides. Objectivity goes out the window. The sheer hysteria of populism garbles everything.

The single message

I work in a lot of different types of communications. The job is simple enough. Make the message clear. Doesn’t matter whether it’s advertising roofing, monoclonal antibodies, or bathroom décor. Sometimes this job involves simply clarifying issues. Sometimes it’s translating the tech into Main Street vocabulary.

The bottom line:

People need straightforward, unambiguous information to make correct decisions.

Whaddya want, a map of the obvious? Blurring the message makes the decision-making process a lot more difficult. Most people aren’t immunologists, epidemiologists, MDs, etc. “This is the problem, this is the fix” is the absolute baseline requirement. How many times have you searched for exactly that online? No-brainer? You’d think so.

But no. The verbosity may be unavoidable, but it’s adding doubt where people should feel confident they’re doing the right thing. Side effects from vaccines are a case in point; making the side effects sound like major threats, when they’re usually not all that much of an issue, isn’t helping anyone.

The anti-vax non-message is the exact opposite of the fundamental need to know in so many ways it’s astonishing. Anyone who can understand simple sentences shouldn’t be fooled for a second. This deliberately unclear, often just plain incorrect, message is by definition bogus. It shouldn’t sell with anyone, but it does? How much non-information could anyone possibly need? Anti-vax messages are based on “might happen” scenarios, never hard facts. Fear takes the place of decision-making.

Add politics, and you get the equally useless “us or them” mindset which has been such fun for the world recently. This message makes basic normal health guidance the enemy. That’s not a good idea for anyone. Do you go to a doctor when you feel sick? Using anti-vax logic, you wouldn’t. This is baseline level disinformation.

I’m wondering why I even need to write this:

  1. Keep facts, data and stats clear.
  2. Spell out the issues in bullet points.
  3. Make sure people know where to get any help or guidance they need for their own issues, preferably with contacts and links.

It should be easy.

Written By

Editor-at-Large based in Sydney, Australia.

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