COVID-19 has forever changed science. There have been many positives. The virus has forced us to question long-held notions in immunology, virology, and critical care, improving our ability to battle disease. There have been brilliant expressions of creativity and ingenuity. The creation of a new vaccine in less than a year is a true wonder to behold in the history of man. There have also been negatives. Unclear messaging and miscommunication have resulted in confusion at all levels of care. A deepening divide of medical issues based more on political beliefs and personal opinions than objective facts has emerged. One of the greatest purveyors of misinformation has been social media.
Early on in the pandemic, my greatest concern was how a new vaccine would unfold in this volatile scientific setting. My worst-case scenario was that the vaccine would come out before there was enough data and that there would be issues afterwards with effectiveness or side effects because the scientific method was rushed and not appropriately followed. So far, the exact opposite has happened. I also worried that such a failure would be a major catalyst in promulgating anti-vaccine sentiment. My fear wasn’t simply that the approach to COVID would be resultingly affected but that decades of efforts to quell other serious diseases previously thwarted by vaccination would be lost.
One of the reasons I had these fears was the immense amount of medical misinformation I saw on Facebook. And generally speaking, because of the wide variety of misinformation topics that appeared daily on my newsfeed, it seemed impossible to tackle all of them. For each topic, it takes me hours of research to logically refute these falsehoods with evidence-based medicine, including a comprehensive review of the literature that I feel is essential to provide. Any response is seen as science-based and not opinion-based.
But something surprising happened when the vaccine went live after FDA authorization. Something that caught me by surprise. It is well documented that a small subset of individuals holds anti-vaccine sentiments, but the impact is large. It has been found that a large amount of anti-vaccine misinformation propaganda stems from a very small number of “super-spreaders” and that algorithms are involved in amplifying messaging, making it appear that more individuals share these sentiments than in fact do. The surprise was that for the first time I can remember on social media, there has been an organized attempt to counter vaccine misinformation by healthcare providers and that this was drowning out the anti-vaccine camp.
As soon as the first vaccines were administered, doctors and nurses popped up in my newsfeed with pictures of them receiving the vaccine. On my account, the effect was profound as I have hundreds of contacts in the healthcare field, so I instantly saw dozens of pictures. I realized these pictures may be the key to a successful acceptance by the general population of a vaccination program.
One very big caveat should go with these posts that I submit for healthcare providers’ consideration: the words we place with these pictures matter. This may be the first time we really can show a unified voice in medicine regarding the virus. This means we have to connect with all of our patients, including those who will be very skeptical of a vaccine. On my own post, I started off with, “Was I nervous or scared? YES.” Because I was. And I followed with, “But … I was very, very informed.” I proceeded to discuss my reasoning for getting the vaccine, the unknowns that I wondered about, and the risk-benefit ratio analysis that led me to conclude a vaccine was the best option for me. And I concluded by asking those with questions to reach out to me to share the information I researched to help them in their decision-making.
For a vaccination campaign to be highly effective, we need to be open to having difficult conversations with people who disagree with our perspective. If we don’t, the result will be a polarization of philosophical ideas and not an unbiased and unemotional assessment of the data where maybe we can meet in the middle.
As we share our pictures and experiences regarding getting our vaccines, let’s try to admit what we know and, more importantly, what we don’t know. Let’s not speak down to those who have questions. And let’s not be afraid to say that maybe we are a little afraid ourselves of some of these unknowns but that we are willing to take the potential risk of getting a vaccine because over the past then months, there are a few more knowns about the actual virus that scare us even more.
Happy conscientious and kind posting.
Alicia Billington, MD, PhD, is a plastic surgeon.
This post appeared on KevinMD.
Last Updated December 30, 2020