Our Role in Addressing Fear of COVID Vaccination

By Robert L. Moore, MD, MPH, MBA, Chief Medical Officer

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

-Marie Curie

Recent surveys have found that physicians are largely inclined to use the new COVID-19 vaccinations (80-90%), while nurses are much less inclined (30-50%), which is lower than the rate in the general public (about 60%). What is the cause of such hesitancy?

The quote above from Marie Curie, two-time Nobel Prize winner for her discovery of radioactivity and radioisotopes, is apropos to answering this question.

On the surface, the appeal to use understanding to overcome fear would seem to invoke using vaccine study data to overcome vaccine hesitancy. There is also an element of idealistic recklessness (or courage?) in this quote, since Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, likely brought on by the radiation that she first described as a scientist. Given how little was known about radiation at the time, much less its effect on humans (DNA was identified as the basis of genetics decades later) it is perhaps not surprising that she was unafraid of radiation. In the end, her drive to generate new knowledge and understanding of the subatomic world was stronger than her fear of potential risks that would not be defined until the future.

Rosalind Franklin was another physicist to die of radiation exposure, in the pursuit of understanding. Her exquisite X-rays of crystalized DNA were the basis of determining that DNA formed a double helix, which allowed Watson and Crick to theorize on its structure. If she hadn’t died, she would have likely been a co-winner of the Nobel Prize for this work. But if she hadn’t persisted in doing radiograph after radiograph (and getting exposed), Watson and Crick would not have had the key information needed to sort it all out.

If Marie Curie had been as afraid of radioactivity as she probably (in retrospect) should have been, the nature of radiation would not have been understood for many years later. She may have lived some years longer, but her important contributions to physics would have had to wait for others to work out. I think her statement above was a reflection of courage, with some subconscious knowledge of the unknown risks, but she felt the work was so important that it outweighed these unknown risks.

The decision to use a new vaccine carries a similar balance of hopefulness and caution: vaccinate sooner to help break the cycle of infection, but potentially be exposed to a risk that is not known at this early time.

New vaccines have a long history of being treated with suspicion at first, so there is an evidence base on what helps increase vaccination rates in this setting. Interestingly, long explanations of all the ways the vaccine has been studied and found to have side effects less severe than the risk of natural infection is NOT very effective. This approach is still important, but we must realize it will not lead to mass acceptance of the vaccine.

So what does work?

Having famous, well-liked or well-respected people publicly get vaccinated and speaking up about why they are doing so is very effective. In 1956, Elvis Presley rolled up his sleeve on national television to receive the new polio vaccine. Historians say this helped increase the acceptance of this vaccine and the rate of adoption.

Making vaccination easy and matter-of-fact is another helpful tactic. Allowing social communities (like schools, churches, hospitals, and health centers) to be vaccinated as a group also increases overall vaccination rates. The combination of convenience and subtle social pressure helps overcome ambivalence.

As leaders, we can use both these strategies in our communities. Find trusted opinion-leaders (including you, the medical leaders in your community) to publicly get vaccinated and speak about it. Make it easy, make it social.

Never in human history has a vaccine been introduced so quickly nor in the face of such a raging pandemic. There may be more risk than we are aware of now, but there are compelling benefits to balance this, as a society, as healthcare leaders and as individuals.

The Origin of the N95 Mask

By Robert L. Moore, MD, MPH, MBA, Chief Medical Officer

“This dramatic escalation of global travel highlighted the perils of emerging infectious diseases.”

–Dr. Wu Lien-teh, talking about the role of railroads on the spread of the Manchurian pneumonic plague of 1910

Born in Malaysia and trained at Cambridge, London, and Paris, Dr. Wu Lien-teh was sent by the Chinese government to control an outbreak of almost universally-fatal pneumonic plague in Manchuria in 1910. He determined that this form of plague was transmitted from person to person by respiratory droplets and developed cloth masks to protect health care workers. European infectious disease physicians initially did not believe Dr. Lien-teh’s findings, partly due to bias against him for being ethnic Chinese. French physician Dr. Gerard Mesny and Scottish physician Arthur Jackson both refused to wear a mask in the hospital treating patients with pneumonic plague, to demonstrate their disagreement with Dr. Lien-teh’s hypotheses. Both contracted pneumonic plague and died.

Refusal to wear masks as a statement of what the person believes, with deadly consequences, is not new to COVID-19. Sadly it has a long history. Luckily, the masks initially used in Manchuria were adapted over the years into the N95 mask and associated personal protective equipment (PPE) we use today.

Dr. Wu Lien-Teh eventually traced the source of the pneumonic plague to trappers of the Mongolian Marmot, which was an endemic carrier of plague. He used a number of measures to study and control the outbreak, including mass cremation of individuals who died, which were unpopular among local officials and the local population. He had to appeal directly to the Chinese emperor for support. Like COVID-19 today, the support of the most senior leader ultimately determined if public health measures would be embraced or not, against resistance of the population.

After COVID-19 is under control, we need to think about how we train not only public health experts, but also non-scientists who may be future political leaders, about the leadership lessons and ethical tradeoffs of past epidemics to try to prevent repeating deadly mistakes of the past in the next pandemic.