When we have a coronavirus vaccine, will we want to use it?

When we have a coronavirus vaccine, will we want to use it?

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Clarence Page

Clarence Page

As the development of a coronavirus vaccine intensifies with the fury of the 1960s race to the moon, a question haunts us Americans: If and when scientists come up with a vaccine, will we want to get it?

I think I would. But what about everyone else?

I wasn’t the only American asking that question. A new Reuters/Ipsos poll published recently finds a quarter of the public has “little or no interest” in a coronavirus vaccine.

The poll found several reasons for the public’s hesitation, including a concern that the record pace by which possible vaccines are being developed could cut corners around safety.

That’s understandable. Haste makes waste, as Mom used to say and, like Mom, 84% of respondents said established vaccines for other diseases such as measles are safe for both adults and children.

Among those who said they were “not very” interested in taking the vaccine, 29% said they would be more interested if the FDA approved it.

Yet, more than 40% feared that the vaccine could be riskier than the disease. That suggests a problem, since medical experts say about 70% of the population would need to be immune, either through vaccine or by fending off a previous infection, for herd immunity to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus.

The question has special meaning to folks like me who are old enough to remember lining up in grade school to receive one of the early polio shots, shortly after it was approved in 1955.

Polio haunted our lives then. When I was in kindergarten in 1952, more than 57,000 children were stricken with the disease and thousands died in one of the worst polio epidemics in American history.

Everybody knew somebody who had to wear heavy leg braces or use an “iron lung” machine just to breathe because of the paralyzing disease. I had to put off learning how to swim because so many parents, including my own, were wary of swimming pools.

“You can catch polio from the water,” my parents said. They had heard that the virus that caused poliomyelitis was transmitted in water, much like we are warned today that coronavirus is transmitted in airborne droplets from sneezing or on unsanitized surfaces.

Unlike today’s small but noisy anti-vaccine movement, I recall how eagerly my parents, our neighbors and our local school officials welcomed the vaccine, not to mention the newscasters of that early television era.

Years later I would be surprised to hear my son, who had reached the age that I had been when I had my shot, ask me, “What’s polio?” It was a striking illustration of how effectively the plague of polio had been almost erased from the planet. Thank you, Dr. Jonas Salk.

Yet vaccine skepticism endures and it has contributed to a resurgence of diseases we thought were driven to extinction.

Add to that a new and unfortunately timely partisan divide on the issue.

Almost 1 in 5 Republicans told the Reuters/Ipsos pollsters that they have no interest in a vaccine, which was more than twice the proportion of Democrats who said the same.

And there’s a racial divide too. Although Black Americans have suffered a disproportionate percentage of COVID-19 deaths, only half said they were somewhat or very interested in a vaccine. This gap may represent community memories of the infamous federal Tuskegee syphilis experiment that deliberately left Black men untreated for syphilis.

Anti-vaccine movements and vaccine skepticism are as old as vaccines. But today’s misinformation-infested social media environment and the White House’s emphasis on swiftness in a vaccine effort called “Operation Warp Speed” unfortunately feeds public fears that safety may be shortchanged.

With that in mind, it’s crucial that health officials remember the importance of public education in our cynical age. I am reminded of how Dr. Salk reportedly tested his vaccine on his own family before its release to help reassure the public. That’s one way to show that you have confidence in your work.

Email Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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