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Let us not be caught up in vicious anti-vaccine drive

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A nurse prepares a vaccine to administer to a patient. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

The recent declaration by the government – requiring a coronavirus vaccination certificate to access in-person services in government offices – stirred a major debate among Kenyans.

As expected, majority are opposed to any such requirements for various reasons. Some have argued that such directives are a violation of individual rights, while others have rightly reasoned that the levels of vaccination are too low.

Truth is governments across the world are frustrated by the apparently strong anti-vaccination movement. While developed nations literally hoarded vaccines for their citizens, the same citizens vehemently opposed mass vaccination.

For developing countries such as Kenya, securing adequate supplies has been hard, with arrivals of such consignments truly celebrated. But instead of appreciating these efforts by turning out in large numbers to receive their jabs, the uptake has been dismal.

At the centre of this apathy is a strong anti-vaccine messaging – a not too new phenomenon. Historical records indicate the anti-vaccine movement goes as far back as the 18th century, interestingly, led by religious leaders. Among them was Reverend Edmund Massey in England who considered disease as a punishment for sin and thus vaccines an attempt to oppose God.

In a sermon in 1772, Massey referred to vaccination as “diabolical operations.” His counterpart in Massachusetts, Reverend John Williams, asserted that vaccines were the work of the devil. Outside Church, anti-vaccine activists formed the Anti-Vaccination League in London with a mission “to protect the liberties of the people being invaded” by Parliament through compulsory vaccination laws.

In 1898, they forced the British Parliament to amend its laws that enforced mandatory vaccination of children. In recent times, media personalities such as Jenny McCarthy and Oprah Winfrey are deemed to have played a big role in giving credence to the anti-vaccine campaign.

However, British Doctor Andrew Wakefield is considered the strongest propellor of anti-vaccination movement. In a 1998 study published in the authoritative journal, The Lancet, he sensationally claimed a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism.

Unfortunately, investigations revealed that he not only misrepresented data, but that he had been funded by litigants against vaccine manufacturers. Consequently, Lancet retracted the study, he was struck off the UK Medical Registry, and barred from practising medicine in UK. But the damage had been done.

The study resulted in a sharp decline in vaccination uptake, leading to a number of outbreaks of measles around the world. From then on, all vaccines have been treated with suspicion – including Covid-19 jabs.

Consequently, the battle between the Anti and the Pro-vaccines has been raging. A recent study on vaccine messaging found that 32 percent of YouTube videos were anti-vaccination and had higher ratings and more views than pro-vaccine videos. Combining other online platforms, the numbers went up to 60 per cent.

Furthermore, anti-vaccination posts spoke to the heart – with emotional rhetoric, story recounts, and heightened fear around vaccine safety – making them more attractive. In short, the anti-vaccine group has worn the propaganda war. No wonder the Wakefield hoax has been called “the most damaging medical hoax in 100 years,” and the single biggest contributor to bringing back outbreaks of diseases which had otherwise been eradicated. What does this mean to Kenya?

The government needs to change its messaging – from addressing the head to moving the heart, from coercion to persuasion. Likewise, Kenyans must move from myths to facts. Vaccinations have been the single most effective method of containing deadly infections, and has helped eradicate such diseases as smallpox, rinderpest, and in some cases, polio. In fact we should thank God that Covid-19 “only kills” its victims. We bury them and gleefully move on with our activism. If it were polio, some victims would live in life-long suffering.

With the new and more deadly variant of Covid-19, knocking at our doors, the unvaccinated should run to the vaccination centres. As for those who have turned death by Covid-19 to be their inalienable human right, should be considerate of those of us who want to live. I suspect that, if there were to be mass infections and deaths (God forbid), the same activists will be in court suing the government for negligence. It is absurd.

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