Who could argue against the idea of vaccination against a dreaded disease? In the 1950’s we took smallpox and polio vaccines; I was too young to know whether there was objection, but if so, it was quiet. I just recall all the kids in my school going to the gym and getting it; it was our duty and privilege.
While the influenza vaccine has been the contributor to death for hundreds of older New Brunswickers over many years, and while there is an annual plethora of sources of influenza vaccination, there has been consistently a core of people in society, including health care professionals and staff at all levels, who have not joined the parade. And each year, nursing home beds become available as people die from influenza. In most cases, those who have succumbed in long term care have been people with high levels of multiple co-morbid conditions. Any one of the conditions could claim their life and the influenza tips the scale for them.
As a father and grandfather, I have watched each year as influenza goes through the schools that my kids attended causing significant absenteeism; and we just came to accept it. Meanwhile, the standards of design and inspection of public washrooms in our communities often does not encourage great personal hygiene and, while cited decades ago as an issue, remains an issue.
Suddenly, on the stage came Covid-19 with massive PR, dominating the airwaves internationally. More than any previous outbreak, this one was politicized to the point that the population seemed anything but united against the common foe.
After getting people accustomed to social distancing, washing hands, wearing masks and staying indoors the focus turned to vaccines. Normally it takes years to get a vaccine from initial virus identification to clinical trials, to many levels of approval. Clinical trials can go for months/years while the effects of the drugs and the effectiveness is researched. Drug companies, no doubt motivated equally by the need to quell the pandemic along with the enormous hundreds of billions of dollars in profits to be earned for shareholders, moved this vaccine to market in record time.
After months of suffering unprecedented mental and physical distress attributable to the “lock down”, the media, health authorities, the WHO, and politicians began the campaign to sell the need for vaccination. The message that was heard was: “having endured the agony of lockdown for months, the only way to rid ourselves of this virus is vaccination.” It was originally said that the necessary “herd immunity” would be achieved when the population was 75% vaccinated.
Soon we heard the controversy internationally of Operation Warp Speed, the initiative of the United States government and the drug manufacturers to race to get a vaccination to market. What normally required years produced vaccines by various companies within months. Suddenly, even before the drugs were on the market, the media was posing questions of effectiveness, comparing one company’s claim against another. So now we had Operation Warp Speed combined with unprecedented competition between major drug companies to see who would be first to market, who could get FDA approval first, whose forecasts of effectiveness were better, whose product had the greatest likelihood of success.
All this in the public eye with non-stop radio and television coverage on every channel and station with reporters asking penetrating questions of drugs just getting to market that could not possibly be correctly answered. Normally it would take years to measure results in such a way as to answer the questions posed in full view of the public day after day, hour after hour. People were glued to their TVs as discussion and questioning took place. Then as the drugs hit the market, any complication reported was given international coverage generating suspicion in the minds of the public as to the effectiveness of “that vaccine”.
Canada was a bit slow to obtain product in quantity and in the early going were limited to one or two suppliers. The Astra Zeneca vaccine had been already cited for its association with blood clots in a few cases. Whether there was a direct correlation or not, who knows. These things take time to analyze properly and it seemed to the public that there was a campaign to discredit this product, a practice not uncommon in the highly-competitive pharmaceutical industry.
Over many decades, there have been complications reported in the media association with many drugs and vaccines. Drugs that have been “miracle products” for many have been summarily taken from the market because of complications reported by a few persons.
In 1980, Dr. Sidney Wolfe and colleagues published a book entitled Pills that Don’t Work in which they analyzed over 600 commonly-prescribed medications in which the products fail to do what the manufacturer claims they will do; many of these drugs remain popular 40 years later! One of the key points in the book is that not all medications react in the same way with every human being. One’s genetic code, physiology, body chemistry determines how the body will respond to any medication.
Government messaging became associated with the vaccine controversy and in New Brunswick, those of us watching the daily briefings by government officials soon determined that government was having misgivings about one of the vaccines that it had used widely in the first round of vaccination. That led to so much public conversation that people started to shy away from that product in favor of a competitive product for the second shot.
Then the United States responded with: when we open the borders, we will not welcome those who have had “mixed doses” or one dose from one vaccine and the second from a different vaccine! We, in the general population, now start to experience a whole set of emotions: fear, doubt, anxiety, anger. All of this publicity is totally without precedent with any past vaccine. Each year when people line up for the life-saving flu vaccine, they never ask their doctor or pharmacist “who is the manufacturer?”
In the general population there is a vocal cohort of persons otherwise labelled as “anti-vaxxers” and they, as of this writing, are becoming vocal again. Are these bad people with evil intent? Are they dumb and ill-informed? It is wrong to label them as such. Those that I have met are simply people with a great fear of putting strange things into their bodies that they think can harm them. In many cases, they have the Covid vaccine controversies to add to years of their own concern and angst.
Drug companies have not exactly been pure in their marketing and certainly there is much known in the general public of the huge profits and the reliance of the health system on the drug industry for its success. Does the public have a right to be skeptical? Absolutely. With the entire pandemic, while small businesses have suffered and the general public has had such huge distress with the red, orange, yellow leading to green and complete lifestyle upset, many people have generated huge profits from this sector world-wide. So does the public, aware of this, have reason to be skeptical? Probably so.
I am fully vaccinated and follow the rules of the Pandemic, so I am not resisting anything; I am trying to understand why others have strong feelings and think that Government should figure out a way to bring people with them in this strategy without brute force.
Ken McGeorge,BS,DHA,CHE is a retired career health care CEO, part time consultant, and columnist with Brunswick News, and author of Health Care Reform in New Brunswick; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ken McGeorge, BS,DHA,CHE is a career health care executive based in Fredericton, NB, Canada.