“Vaccine safety scares don’t often catch fire – a lot of people try and light those fires, but mostly they don’t catch fire. But when they do, you can have years of hesitancy around that particular vaccine.”
Philippine authorities suspended use of the vaccine after linking it to a number of deaths and later indicted a number of officials from the Department of Health and the French drug maker Sanofi for “reckless imprudence resulting in homicide”.
Local and international medical experts, however, have cast the government’s response as being heavily politicised and stressed that there remains insufficient evidence to draw a link between the vaccine and any deaths.
The WHO in 2017 expressed concern that attention on “spurious case reports and unsubstantiated allegations” in Japan and elsewhere was having a negative impact on vaccine coverage “despite the extensive safety data available”.
John Siu Lun Tam, a vaccination expert at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said anti-vaccination sentiment in Asia, while weaker than elsewhere, appeared to be taking cues from Western countries where it is heavily associated with higher socio-economic status.
“In Asia, anti-vaccine sentiment shares many features [with] Western countries,” Tam said. “As the economic status of many Asian countries has been on a rapid rise in the recent decades, ‘Western’ ideas and practices are being adopted and in this incidence of the anti-vaccine movement, such sentiment is expected to rise in the near future. In fact, such activities in some countries are on the rise already. ”
Religious or ethical concerns have also been a hindrance to uptake in some predominantly Muslim societies.
As the economic status of many Asian countries has been on a rapid rise in the recent decades, ‘Western’ ideas and practices are being adopted
Across the country, 16 per cent of parents express hesitancy about vaccinating their children due to safety and efficacy concerns, according to research by Suwantika, with childhood immunisation reaching just 58 per cent nationwide.
“There’s always risk and people are very sophisticated these days,” Kim said. “You would think that for instance in Africa that the anti-vaccination movement would actually be pretty weak but in some countries, through social media and other tools – and Asians are very social media-savvy – the anti-vaxxer messages spread very quickly and very effectively, unfortunately.”
Kim said it would be especially important to clearly communicate the precautions undertaken during development, given the risk that an accelerated time frame could fuel public concerns about safety.
“From a safety perspective, the normal mechanisms that we would have to make sure that a vaccine is safe will continue to apply,” he said.
“We’ll have at least one year of safety information, which is a lot, and when we talk about adverse events to vaccines, most of them occur within a relatively short time span after the vaccine.”
Ultimately, though, convincing people to accept a coronavirus vaccine could prove to be far less of a problem than keeping up with enormous demand from a pandemic-weary public.
Leask said a look at how newspapers covered the introduction of the polio vaccine during the 1950s suggested people would be clamouring for a cure.
“People were rejoicing,” she said. “People were queuing up around the block for the vaccine.” ■