Anti-vaxxers gaining momentum around the world, including SA
Recent surveys show there’s rising vaccine scepticism in South Africa.
Vaccination in South Africa is not compulsory, but every citizen is expected to adhere to preventive measures such as wearing a mask, physical distance, cleaning of hands regularly, sufficient fresh air and avoiding crowded spaces.
This is the word from the national Health Department in reaction to the growing number of countries where citizens say they will not take the Covid-19 vaccine should it become available.
Health Department spokesperson Popo Maja stressed that no one will be vaccinated without being registered.
“The government has embarked on mass communication to encourage and educate citizens about the importance of vaccination as a pillar of public health and well-being. It is well documented how mass vaccination has saved societies,” he said.
But South Africa is not the only country where the chorus of anti-vaxxers is growing.
The BBC will today air The Anti-Vax Files on its World Service at 6.30am SAST and Sunday, April 4, at 8.30pm SAST.
The series investigates how “hard-core anti-vaccine activists around the world have used social media to spread their message far and wide, capitalising on fear and mistrust to advance their own agendas during the pandemic”.
Author of the The Anti-Vax files, Mike Wendling said recent surveys show there’s rising vaccine scepticism in South Africa.
But even before the pandemic started, the Rainbow Nation was battling a tide of anti-vax misinformation online.
The Anti-Vax Files explores how the anti-vaccine movement has manifested across the world, from France – portrayed as one of the most vaccine-sceptic countries in the world – to India and Germany.
“The series will turn the spotlight on the world’s social media giants asking whether they turned a blind eye, or just acted too late in countering misinformation about vaccines.
“It will also look at more traditional sources of information – journalists, governments, and health officials – and ask whether they simply weren’t ready for the “infodemic” that was to come with the virus,” said Wendling.
He said while it’s hard or even impossible, to say how many anti-vax groups exist on social media around the world, it is safe to say they number at least in the millions.
Wendling and his team found more than 350 anti-vaccine Instagram accounts, Facebook groups and Facebook pages in English alone.
Wendling said of those English-language groups, pages and accounts, they found that by the end of last year the Instagram accounts had more than 4 million followers, the Facebook groups and pages had more than 5 million.
In both cases those were substantial increases throughout the pandemic.
In the case of the Instagram accounts – they grew fourfold.
There were also other big jumps on Twitter.
“The bottom line is that collectively they got a huge boost in popularity throughout the course of the pandemic.
“But it’s important to note that while these groups are a source of disinformation, what they produce ends up in all sorts of different areas, far from the hardcore conspiracy world,” he said.
The study found many myths about vaccines in parenting and mothering groups, in groups devoted to local news, in neighbourhood forums and WhatsApp chats.
“If it was confined to those few hundred most active groups, that would be a relatively small issue.
“It’s when the things that are invented and spread in those groups reach a broader audience that they become really viral and potentially very harmful,” he warned.
The largest groups operate in the US and in the biggest European countries.
“But it’s important to point out that of course social media is global and groups cross national boundaries quite easily.
“For instance, we’ve looked at some research that indicates that the most energetic activists targeting South Africa in this area don’t actually live in the country.
“They have connections with South Africa or connections with people living in South Africa, but essentially they’re a larger contingent of people living mostly in Europe and America who are exporting their extreme anti-vaccination ideas,” said Wendling.
The research found that some beliefs are very extreme – people believe that a vaccine might alter their DNA or that it is poison that is likely to kill them, some people think that Covid-19 vaccines haven’t been properly tested.
So far the series has looked at how far anti-vaccine propaganda has spread in the English-speaking world, particularly the US and UK – using research from an exclusive report by BBC Monitoring – as well as how the movement has manifested in French-speaking Europe.
In the weeks to come, the programme will also be looking at stories in Germany, India, and Brazil.
Back home, 269 102 health-care workers have been vaccinated under the Sisonke Protocol, as at April 1.