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Vaccine misinformation is a virus unto itself and it's costing lives

Dr Samantha Batt-Rawden

Dr Samantha Batt-Rawden

4 min read

With vaccine disinformation creating confusion and distrust, healthcare workers that have put their head above the parapet are a target for abuse.

Last week the country breathed a sigh of relief as the number of new Covid-19 cases appeared to be on the decline. The pressure in hospitals however shows no sign of abating any time soon, with hospital admissions and deaths continuing to rise.

The patients we are seeing requiring intensive care appear to be getting younger and younger. This isn’t just anecdote; the Intensive Care National Audit & Research Centre recently published data showing that the mean age of patients requiring critical care has dropped to an average age of just 49 years old.

From a critical care point of view, the pandemic appears to have shifted to one of the young and unvaccinated. Over 63 per cent of patients requiring admission to hospital have not received a single dose of the vaccine. When it comes to those requiring ICU, the difference becomes even more stark. As an intensive care doctor, I have only seen one vaccinated patient requiring intensive care or high dependency level support. The rest are not. Sadly, they all come to regret their decision.

Some hold onto their entrenched belief that Covid-19 does not exist right up until the point they go onto a ventilator

Watching people die fighting for breath, knowing that their fate could, and probably would, have been different if they had just had the vaccine, is very difficult for NHS staff. Could we have done more to speak out against misinformation - would it have saved lives? It is a question that will continue to haunt us.

The World Health Organisation recently shared research that suggested in just a short 3 month period in 2020, over 6000 people were estimated to have been hospitalised as a consequence of misinformation. Of those, at least 800 would lose their lives.

Why is this happening? When patients have shared their reasons with us for not taking the vaccine, the answer is invariably always there same, they have persuaded by misinformation on social media. The same is true of patients or indeed in some cases their families who are Covid deniers. Some continue to hold onto their entrenched belief that Covid-19 does not exist right up until the point they go onto a ventilator.

This is a tragedy, and a preventable one. Perhaps, this is why so many doctors and other healthcare professionals have felt it their duty to take to social media in an attempt to tackle this wall of misinformation. But with disinformation creating confusion and distrust, those that have put their head above the parapet have immediately made themselves a target for abuse. Without clear messaging from the government on this, and NHS staff being the ones to take a stand, it is clinicians who have found themselves in the crosshairs.

For their part, many social media platforms have experimented with various ways of tackling this. This is to be applauded, but it isn’t enough. Every day healthcare workers are bombarded with abuse from anti-vaxxers and Covid deniers, I am one of them.

Last week this swirling hatred reached fever pitch when we saw a former nurse, recently struck off due to spreading misinformation, stand up in front of thousands of people in Trafalgar Square and tell the cheering crowd to get the names of healthcare professionals; roaring into a microphone that in the Nuremberg Trials doctors and nurses hung.

This wouldn’t be out of place in a dystopian novel, yet this is the reality of what NHS staff are facing, even as they try to save the lives of those landed in ICU by the kind of misinformation that was spread at that rally on that day.

It has been said that the majority of misinformation online comes from just 12 people. Dubbed the “disinformation dozen”, this group has a combined following of over 59 million followers. Hostility is already spilling over into clinical practice, with abuse and violence against NHS staff recently reported to be on the rise.

One of my colleagues recently told me she will no longer say in public that she is a frontline NHS worker, making sure her hospital ID badge in hidden away in a pocket before walking home. With vitriol and dangerous disinformation spreading like wildfire many NHS workers are looking over their shoulders.

For many of us the pandemic has felt like we are fighting the war on two fronts. Combatting misinformation on one hand and battling to save the lives of those who have believed it on the other. It is relentless. We cannot win this war on our own, and desperately need government support.

Now is the time to be honest about what we are dealing with. Misinformation is a virus unto itself, and it is killing people.


Dr Samantha Batt-Rawden is an NHS intensive care doctor.

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