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The very obvious reason why vaccine hesitancy is on the rise

Last week, new research from the University of Portsmouth found that “vaccine confidence” had been hit hard by the events of the last two years. 

The Covid crisis had led to a “significant” fall in confidence in vaccines, the study, which was published in the medical journal Vaccine, found. The decline was recorded in almost one in four participants since 2020, regardless of their age, gender, religious belief, education or ethnicity.

Two anonymous surveys were carried out in the winter of both 2019 and 2022 to measure attitudes to vaccinations and to examine what factors might lead to vaccine hesitancy and to outright refusal

Participants in the study were asked how much they agreed with statements such as: ‘Vaccines are safe’, ‘I think vaccines should be a compulsory practice’,  ‘Vaccines are a necessity for our health and wellbeing’ and ‘I believe if I get vaccinated it would benefit the wellbeing of others’.

When asked about their confidence in vaccinations, almost 24% said that it had “decreased since the Covid pandemic”. Almost 55% said their confidence was unchanged, while almost 22% said it had increased.

The researchers also noted that people from black and Asian backgrounds, along with those who held religious beliefs, tended to be more vaccine hesitant than those of white ethnicities. There was a considerable decline in Vaccine Confidence Scores in people from both Asian and black backgrounds between 2019 and 2022.

They also said that the results  were taken from two different cohorts of people – but said that the “study is consistent with other observations suggesting that vaccine confidence may be yet another victim of the Covid-19 pandemic.’

This seems a rather odd way to frame it, in my view.

The heading of the paper asks “Is vaccine confidence an unexpected victim of the COVID-19 pandemic?” and the researchers appear puzzled at the outcome of the survey.

They say that “despite abundant epidemiological evidence of the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines”, vaccine confidence went down.

Perhaps one of the causes is to be found, not in the survey analysis, but in the very understandable reaction of people the world over who were promised the sun, moon and stars about a vaccine that failed to deliver – and maybe could never have delivered,  given how ludicrous the expectations were.

First of all, the deadly effect of Covid was wildly overestimated. Remember the predictions, back in March 2020 when Professor Sam McConkey warned that up to 120,000 Irish people could die from Covid-19 – even claiming that the disaster could be as bad as the “Spanish Flu, the Civil War & 1929 Stock Market Crash” rolled into one.

It goes without saying that every Covid death was a tragedy but the health authorities here and elsewhere seemed to place all our hopes on a vaccine to deliver us from all Covid.

Then the vaccine – or several different vaccines from Pfizer, Moderna and more – were developed, approved and roll-out began. We were told, unequivocally, that the vaccine was a game-changer, and that everyone needed to ‘follow the science’ and get the vaccine to “keep everyone safe”, as Stephen Donnelly said.

Professor Luke O’Neill, a seemingly-omnipotent presence during the Covid period, told the country in February 2021  to “Take whatever vaccine is available: Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca are ‘all 100% effective in stopping hospitalizations and death.’”

O’Neill also said that if mass vaccinations happened as soon as possible in 2021 then the “powerful” vaccines would allow Europe to open up again by the summer.  “The death rate will fall, the hospital rates will fall, all of that will happen in the next six to eight weeks and the more vaccines we get the quicker that happens,” he predicted.

But, as we all now know, what was promised did not deliver, especially in terms of lifting the lockdown.

People flocked to take the vaccine because they wanted an end to lockdown and to never-ending restrictions and being isolated from their families. They wanted to go out, to hug granny again, for life to get back to normal. Almost 85% of Irish people were vaccinated, because they were told that this would stop Covid.

It didn’t. At first, the number of deaths and hospitalisations took a welcome dive, though that pattern holds true for the summer months in general for any virus. But then, that changed. The effectiveness of the vaccine was waning rapidly, the authorities acknowledged, and new variants were coming to the fore.

As winter darkened, the numbers in ICU and in hospitals started to rise rapidly again – and this time most of those who were seriously ill were people who had received the Covid vaccine. In general, the WHO says, the vaccine would help against hospitalization and death but clearly the virus was still being transmitted to those who were vaccinated and some were getting very ill.

And so, in October 2021, even though 91% of Irish were vaccinated, we saw the same number of people sick and hospitalized with Covid as in March of that year when the vaccine roll out was only getting underway. As Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan admitted: the coronavirus vaccines were “not performing as well as hoped” in stopping the transmission of the Covid virus.

By the following month, the HPSE was reporting that 100% of people who died with Covid-19 in the prior week in Ireland were fully or partly vaccinated.

That meant, of course, that the HSE, like every other health authority, had to then encourage people to take a second vaccine, and then a third, and afterwards a fourth. For a great many people, it felt as if the vaccine had failed – or at not lived up to its promise, even if that promise was made, not by the manufacturers, but by its many exponents.

I imagine that this might be a significant reason behind the new levels of vaccine hesitancy.

Given the disappointment about the efficacy of the much-heralded vaccine, fewer people were persuaded to take a second vaccine, fewer again a third, and people openly bristled at the suggestion of a fourth. To many people, the ever-changing assertions left them with a feeling that this vaccine did not prove reliable, and did not fully deliver.

For those who were not at risk and who were persuaded – often with the threat of exclusion – to take the vaccine anyway, there must have been the feeling that the the jab did not live up to the hype

That sense of disappointment may be what is being captured in the surveys on vaccine hesitancy.

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