Vaccine Hesitancy Is Nothing New

By Marc Lefkowitz, for the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative

Fear of getting vaccinated is nothing new — millions of Americans report being afraid of needles. But why is there hesitancy to the COVID-19 vaccine?

For Black Americans, it could be a response to the history of vaccinations and ethically compromised experiments, like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, where doctors withheld treatment for Black men from 1932 until 1972, when a whistleblower finally brought it to the public's attention. It is but one well-documented case in medical history that may be undermining confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine developed under the federal government's Operation Warp Speed

Addressing the oft-cited Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Amanda Mahoney, chief curator of the Dittrick Museum of Medical History at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) casts doubt that COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among minorities can be traced to one event. 

“You can lay a lot of this at the federal government’s feet because of unclear messaging in [2020],” she said. 

A range of factors, including trust in authorities, influence the decision of whether or not a person will get the vaccine. A recent survey by a business group found that 24 percent of workers would refuse to get vaccinated if their employer required it.

“The COVID vaccine is different from mass vaccination programs,” said Mahoney, explaining that it was compulsory for children to get vaccinated during the smallpox epidemics at the turn of the 20th century. “Many of the vaccinations we are familiar with are for children — you have parents making decisions for their children and not themselves.”

Vaccine hesitancy spiked with British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who in a 1998 article in “Nature” magazine, espoused the theory that a trace level of mercury in Mumps Measles Rubella (MMR) vaccines was linked to autism. A large study in 2002 and subsequent books like “The Doctor Who Fooled the World” by Brian Deer, refuted Wakefield's theory, but the damage was done. Wakefield’s theory was picked up and amplified on social media by micro-influencers like model and actress Jenny McCarthy, who wrote a 2007 book on the topic

“Anti-vaxxers” are typically white and affluent, Mahoney said. The seeds of the current anti-vaccination movement, however, were planted well before the early 2000s, she added. 

“There were early anti-vaccination groups in the 19th century, mostly pushing up against compulsory vaccination and rules like not allowing students who weren't vaccinated into schools,” Mahoney said. “They use fear around the safety of vaccines to get support from white, middle class mothers to fight against regulation of any kind. And the healthcare institutions have not done a great job of educating people how disease works.”

Dr. Rebecca Lowenthal, a family medicine specialist in the MetroHealth System, said healthcare providers are addressing misinformation head-on with patients.

“I tell patients, when I got my first [COVID-19] shot I didn’t get any symptoms,” Lowenthal said. “But the second [shot], I got sick for 24 hours. I want that sickness. It’s a good way to know your body is forming those antibodies.”

In Lowenthal’s opinion, doctors will gain ground on influencers moving forward.

“If I have a good patient-doctor relationship, we can have an honest conversation. Sometimes, being at higher risk is something they perceive,” which has been the case for pregnant women taking the vaccine, she said.

“My understanding is there are no documented cases of fertility [being negatively impacted],” Lowenthal said. “I’m part of a doctor/mom group on the internet. Most [of the women] are getting their shots.”

 This story is sponsored by the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative, which is composed of 20-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets, including ideastream.

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