Vaccines continue to make headlines, especially with the anticipated debut of COVID-19 immunizations. Unfortunately, skepticism of vaccines has risen, resulting in a rise of vaccine-preventable diseases.

We’ve seen chickenpox and measles reemerge in communities, which should no longer occur in our country. This problem isn’t limited to the United States; it’s a problem worldwide. In fact, last year the World Health Organization listed vaccine hesitancy among the top ten global health threats. That’s up there with Ebola, climate change, antibiotic-resistant super bugs, and yes — a potential pandemic.

Viewpoints fall across a spectrum when it comes to vaccination and preventive care. Most people who are hesitant to receive vaccines aren’t staunchly opposed to vaccination. Rather, they harbor concerns about safety, effectiveness and necessity.

Some believe vaccines against diseases not seen in their community are unnecessary. Why vaccinate for polio if it’s not present in the United States? The answer is that until the disease is completely eradicated from the entire globe, vaccination must continue to prevent reemergence. We’ve only successfully eliminated one virus, smallpox, and as a result, we no longer vaccinate against it. The current pandemic reminds us that infectious diseases are just a plane ride away.

The fortune of being in good health frequently leads people to believe they’re at low risk of infection. Because the perceived threat of illness is low, some find it difficult to accept an injection with its minor side effects and the potential for rare but serious adverse events. The safety of vaccines, among all therapeutics, is the most studied precisely for this reason: Vaccines are given to people who aren’t currently ill. We have a natural aversion to giving healthy people something that may sicken them.

Nationwide polling indicates that less than half of Americans are willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine if available. People are concerned with the rapid conduct of the clinical trials and the strong push toward approval. It’s important to understand that shortcuts in the science haven’t occurred during the study of the vaccine candidates.

Decades of vaccine discovery and preclinical testing were conducted prior to use in humans thanks to outbreaks of similar coronaviruses (e.g., SARS and MERS). The same amount of money and volunteers is needed for a vaccine study — the difference now is that the money and volunteers are available over a short period, rather than the years for other vaccines.

In a move to further reassure the public, vaccine manufacturers have pledged to not seek government approval until their candidate has met the usual efficacy and safety standards.

Many see COVID-19 vaccines as a glimmer of hope for a return to “normal” life while others are fraught with fear of receiving a new vaccine. With no “silver bullet” to treat COVID-19, as well as the potential long-term complications of infection, the importance of prevention shouldn’t be underestimated.

Let us prevent what’s preventable when we have vaccines available.

Vaccine Smarts is written by Sealy Institute for Vaccine Sciences faculty members Drs. Megan Berman, an associate professor of internal medicine, and Richard Rupp, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch. For questions about vaccines, email vaccine.smarts@utmb.edu.

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