On Monday, February 23rd 2021, America reached a staggering and horrific milestone. Just barely under a year since the first American succumbed to the virus, the USA surpassed 500,000 deaths due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Half a million lives cut short in just a year – a number that surpasses both comprehension and belief. More people have died from the virus than all the battlefield deaths of WWI, WWII, and the Vietnam War combined. Such a grim milestone is just one of numerous reasons as to why this current vaccination effort against this virus might be one of the most consequential in American history – with huge implications for both American lives and the economy at large.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines were no less useful. However, since the advent and spread of social media, misinformation has been allowed to run rampant on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter regarding the safety of vaccines. The modern anti-vaccination campaign can be roughly traced back to a long-debunked paper by former physician Andrew Wakefield, in which he falsely claimed that there was a link between a plethora of vaccines and autism in children. While Wakefield was discredited and his views were proven false, his beliefs found a safe haven on message boards and forums on the internet. Since then, anti-vaxx views have been enthusiastically adopted by people ranging from far-right conspiracy theorists to liberal health-and-wellness advocates. It is this background of misinformation that health professionals in the United States must deal with before being able to effectively market the vaccine.
A particular subset of the population in which anti-vaccination sentiment is higher than other groups are the African-American and Latino communities. The roots of this mistrust are rooted in numerous factors, ranging from the government’s long history of medical experimentation on African Americans to the lack of minority professionals in the medical community itself. In an interview with the New York Times, Dr. Wiley, a Black infectious disease specialist at Emory University, emphasized the importance of Black and Hispanic voices in the medical community in helping to get everyone vaccinated. “I don’t want us to benefit the least,” said Dr. Wiley. “We should be the first in line to get it.” Many physicians like her are encouraging their friends and family to get the vaccine, giving people a chance to share their concerns and offering reliable information in response. Dr. Valeria Daniela Lucio Cantos, another infectious disease specialist at Emory, has been hosting virtual town halls and webinars on the topic of vaccination, including one with Hispanic and Black employees of the cleaning staff at Emory University. In her words, she believes that they are listening not only because she is Hispanic and speaks Spanish, but also because she is an immigrant herself. To the people in her community, having someone that “they can relate to [culturally]” is hugely important.
In marketing the COVID-19 vaccines, it is people like Dr. Wiley and Dr. Cantos that will be a crucial part of the fight against misinformation. The medical community cannot accomplish this task alone, however. All levels of government – from the mayor of a small town to the President himself – must have a unified message on vaccinations in order to get as many Americans as possible to get themselves and their families a shot. Social Media networks like Facebook and Twitter hold immense power in today’s interconnected society. Companies like them must do everything in their power to remove misinformation regarding the vaccine and promote its safety. Working in tandem with the government, the ability for the anti-vaccination movement to spread will be hindered significantly.
The ability for these factors to come together in these upcoming months will be absolutely critical. How effectively we as a nation market the vaccine to our people is nearly as important as the production of the vaccines themselves. Without a critical mass of vaccinated individuals, COVID-19 will continue to reign havoc on families across the country. Marketing against misinformation and supporting science can save thousands of lives – an impact that cannot be overstated.