Dr Peter Hotez on Combatting Antivaccination Beliefs and Rescuing Public Health From Politics

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In an interview conducted before the highly transmissible Omicron coronavirus variant began driving another wave of infections, Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, FASTMH, discussed the struggle public health officials and scientists have in fighting false beliefs about vaccinations.

In an interview conducted before the highly transmissible Omicron coronavirus variant began driving another wave of infections, Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, FASTMH, discussed the struggle public health officials and scientists have in fighting false beliefs about vaccinations.

Hotez is a professor of pediatrics and molecular virology and dean, National School of Tropical Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine, and codirector, Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

Transcript

What is the most effective way to counter antivaccination sentiment?

I wish I had the magic wand to know. I think to answer that we really need to understand the realities of why so many people are refusing vaccinations. There's a lot of emphasis about the role of social media companies, especially Facebook; we're hearing that from the Surgeon General. But that doesn't get to the sources of the disinformation or what I now call antiscience aggression. I think we have to seriously look at those sources, which includes a group of more than a dozen nongovernmental organizations, which the Center for Countering Digital Hate refers to as the “disinformation dozen,” who are monetizing the internet. Also the aggression coming out of political extremism on the far right. We're hearing members of Congress claiming that vaccines are nothing more than political instruments of control. We're hearing this from some of the governors and conservative news outlets, and this is causing a lot of damage as well. Those are the 2 big areas: the disinformation dozen and the nongovernmental groups, the far right-wing aggression.

And even now we have some state actors that are using this to create divide in our country, like the Russian government and the Russian propaganda machine. This has been documented by US and British intelligence. So, I've suggested that we need an interagency task force to really look at this in a more substantial way and recognize this is a killing force. As I say, more than 100,000 Americans have lost their lives this summer from antiscience aggression.*

Is it possible to separate the science of public health from politics?

Increasingly, no, and actually, this idea is not new. [Rudolf] Virchow, the great German pathologist in the 19th century, made it clear that public health is inextricably linked to politics, although we work hard to try to uncouple the two. I think what's been clear is the antivaccine, antiscience aggression has been very much adopted by an element of far-right-wing extremism. And, you know, as I like to say, it's not me who’s politicizing this, it's those guys.

What our job is, is to try to see if we can uncouple or delink the antiscience from the politics. But it's been very tough to do it in 2021 and has caused such an enormous loss of life. This is going to be one of the great challenges, in part because, you know, our medical training or training as physician scientists, we're told we shouldn't talk about Republicans and Democrats and liberals and conservatives. That's not really within our DNA, you know. But I've not found a way to talk about it, other than to talk about it, because the partisan divide around vaccination rates and the regionalization on that basis is so dramatic.

And so this is going to be I think, a new role for physician scientists, in trying to understand how we can navigate the politics, feel comfortable talking about it, but in a nonjudgmental way, in order to save lives and save the lives of our patients.

*At the time of the interview in late October, 2021. The number of deaths in the United States from COVID-19 since vaccines became widely available passed 160,000 in December, according to the Petersen-KFF Health System System Tracker.