Resistance towards mask-wearing and social distancing by some sectors signals another looming challenge for the Government — securing real public buy-in once a vaccine becomes available, according to a top Cork scientist.
The answer, he believes, may be in promoting real-life, human stories of people who were not vaccinated and who became infected with the potentially lethal virus.
Currently the emphasis in the battle against Covid-19 is on behaviour change — mask-wearing, social distancing and hand hygiene. However, the recent violent anti-mask protests highlight resistance by certain members of the public to these practises.
In this light, convincing the majority of people to participate in vaccine uptake when the time comes may present a new challenge, warns Professor Fergus Shanahan, Emeritus Professor of Medicine at University College Cork and founding director of APC Microbiome Ireland SFI Research Centre at UCC.
“If we’re having a difficulty with masks, what will it be like with vaccines? Pandemics are not just public health or economic crises – they are also communication crises because it’s all about communicating your message to the public,” he warns.
The gastroenterologist, who has just published a new book,, on illness and how we approach it, believes health experts should carefully consider how they will convince the public to take the vaccine once it becomes available.
“In my view, science shows that stories work better than facts about safety. I'm referring to stories of what happens to vulnerable people who get infected; who have not been vaccinated or if herd immunity is not developed.”
Currently, he observed, we were “all hoping for the end-game, which is a vaccine. “Meanwhile we’re asking people to change their behaviour to get us through.” However, he believes, the “huge rise” in the number of people campaigning against masks signals a potential swell in public resistance to vaccination.
“People who deny the benefits of vaccines threaten the health of the entire population. “However, trying to convince vaccine-deniers of the safety and effectiveness of vaccination is like trying to debate with conspiracy theorists, flat-earth enthusiasts and those who insist that Elvis is still alive.
“Vaccine-deniers will frequently resort to a belief held with religious-like fervour that doctors, scientists, government and the pharmaceutical companies are linked in a web of deception.
“Scientific data is dismissed as collusion among the vested interests. Instead, the vaccine-sceptics offer irrational arguments bolstered by anecdotes, half-truths, fragmentary evidence or truths taken out of context.
“Sadly, inaccurate statements by vaccine-deniers receive wide publicity when they are endorsed by fake experts and ill-informed celebrities.” Logic and rational discussion does not appear to work with vaccine-deniers, warned Prof Shanahan who adds that this could be “one of the things that will threaten the effectiveness of a vaccine.”
“If a large proportion of the population is reluctant to take the vaccine we will never reach herd immunity. I think the message should not be about trying to persuade them. What has been shown to work to some degree are the true stories of what happens to vulnerable people who are not vaccinated.”