As the world eagerly awaits the first doses of a coronavirus vaccine being rolled out, some in Sweden are watching with trepidation.
For Meissa Chebbi, 21, who like hundreds of other young Swedes suffered debilitating narcolepsy after a mass vaccination campaign against the 2009-2010 swine flu pandemic, the vaccine is not something she will be rushing to get.
“I will never recommend that,” Chebbi told AFP when asked about taking a speedily developed vaccine.
“Unless you really have to take it because of life-threatening circumstances.”
The Swedish case highlights the complex task governments face in rolling out vaccines against the coronavirus, especially at a time when rabid social media misinformation is feeding scepticism in state institutions and even about the disease itself.
The trauma over vaccines is particularly notable in Sweden, which normally boasts participation of more than 90 per cent in its voluntary children’s vaccination program.
But a recent survey conducted by the Novus polling institute suggested that 26 per cent of Swedes do not plan to take any of the COVID-19 vaccines being developed and 28 per cent are undecided.
Forty-six per cent said they would get a jab. Of those opposed, 87 per cent said it was due to fears over as-yet unknown side effects.
SWINE FLU VACCINE FEARS
It comes after the Scandanavian country had a nasty experience in 2009 after health authorities urged the public to take the Pandemrix vaccine against swine flu, made by British drug company GlaxoSmithKline.
More than 60 per cent heeded the call — the highest level in the world. But Chebbi and hundreds of others, primarily children and young adults under 30, were later diagnosed with narcolepsy as a side effect of the vaccine.
A link was eventually established to an adjuvant, or booster, in the Pandemrix vaccine which was intended to strengthen the immune response.
Narcolepsy is a chronic disorder of the nervous system that causes excessive and often uncontrollable drowsiness.
“I have sleep attacks all the time in all kinds of situations and at inappropriate times … In my food, at job interviews, at lectures, seminars, at university. I’ve fallen asleep at my workplace, I fall asleep on buses and everywhere,” Chebbi said.
“It has destroyed my life.”
The Swedish Pharmaceutical Insurance has so far approved 440 of 702 narcolepsy claims linked to Pandemrix, paying out a total of 100 million kronor (A$ 15.7 million) in compensation.
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‘IF ONLY WE HAD KNOWN’
Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s state epidemiologist and the face of the country’s controversial ‘softer’ response to the new coronavirus, was among a group of experts at the Board of Health who called for the mass vaccination in 2009-2010.
“Of course the decision would have been completely different if we had known about the side effects. But they were completely unknown, they were a surprise to everybody,” Tegnell told AFP in an interview.
“There has been an international consensus for many years that the best thing to do during a pandemic is to vaccinate, and that’s really the only long-term solution we have.”
Babis Stefanides, a 36-year-old Stockholm resident, said he’s too wary to take a COVID jab.
“I’m not planning to take the vaccine,” he told AFP. “There are just too many questions.” Tegnell said he understood Swedes’ concerns.
“Of course when you have a new vaccine that we don’t know very much about yet — against a disease that we don’t know very much about — everybody … wants to have more information before they make a decision on this,” he said.
“We are going to inform about these vaccines when we know a little bit more about them.” Tegnell ruled out making any future vaccine mandatory.
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It comes amid widespread fears about disinformation that health authorities fear could undermine attempts to distribute enough vaccine for the potentially deadly virus.
The three vaccines that have been shown effective in trials are still subject to regulatory approval, including the Therapeutic Goods Administration in Australia.
The makers of the vaccines insist no corners have been cut in their development, despite working at breakneck speed. However reporting error such as those made by AstraZeneca could erode public confidence, some fear.
The degree of misinformation swirling online has led the World Health Organisation to issue a warning about an “infodemic”, of fake news and misinformation on social media as early as February.
Hannah Laine, a 37-year-old social worker in Stockholm, said she, her husband and their three kids would definitely be getting the vaccine — despite her fears.
“If it’s approved for the market and we notice that the public health agency and society is saying that we should take the vaccine, we’ll do it,” she told AFP.
“We have to take our moral responsibility for the elderly and the sick. We’ll take it, maybe not for our sake but for society’s.”
But chair of Sweden’s Narcolepsy Association Elisabeth Widell, said in 2009 authorities appealed to a sense of solidarity and she hopes it won’t be done again.
“People who choose not to get vaccinated should not be blamed and shamed. Because it’s not mandatory, which means it’s a free choice,” she said.
The World Health Organisation fears fake news and information online could jeopardise hopes of a mass immunisation effort that could save millions of lives.
“The coronavirus disease is the first pandemic in history in which technology and social media are being used on a massive scale to keep people safe, informed, productive and connected,” the WHO said.
“At the same time, the technology we rely on to keep connected and informed is enabling and amplifying an infodemic that continues to undermine the global response and jeopardises measures to control the pandemic.”
More than 1.4 million people have died since the pandemic emerged in China late last year.
Last month, a study from Cornell University in the United States found that US President Donald Trump has been the world’s biggest driver of COVID-19 misinformation during the pandemic.
In April, Trump mused on the possibility of using disinfectants inside the body to cure the virus and also promoted unproven treatments.
“Without the appropriate trust and correct information, diagnostic tests go unused, immunisation campaigns (or campaigns to promote effective vaccines) will not meet their targets, and the virus will continue to thrive,” the WHO said.
Rachel O’Brien, head of the WHO’s immunisation department, said the agency was worried about false information propagated by the anti-vaxxer movement.
“We are very concerned about that and concerned that people get their info from credible sources, that they are aware that there is a lot information out there that is wrong, either intentionally wrong or unintentionally wrong,” she told AFP.
Steven Wilson, a professor at Brandeis University and co-author of a study entitled “Social Media and Vaccine Hesitancy” published in the British Medical Journal last month, saw a link between online disinformation campaigns and a decline in vaccination.
“My fear regarding the impact of disinformation on social media in the context of COVID-19 is that it will increase the number of individuals who are hesitant about getting a vaccine, even if their fears have no scientific basis,” he said.
“Any vaccine is only as effective as our capacity to deploy it to a population.”
Among the more outlandish claims by conspiracy theorists, for example, is the idea that the novel coronavirus pandemic is a hoax or part of an elite plan, masterminded by the likes of Bill Gates, to control the population.