Dr Nicole Ramlachan

Geneticist: Dr Nicole Ramlachan

DURING the past year and a half, Covid-19 has claimed more than 1,000 lives in T&T and over four million lives worldwide.

Despite the trail of destruction left behind by the pandemic, misinformation about the vaccines which are scientifically proven to dramatically drive down the risk of severe illness, hospitalisation and death, persists. There are some who doubt the efficacy of vaccines while touting herbal remedies, a cocktail of unproven drugs and sitting out in the sun as the best prevention against the 21st century’s deadliest pandemic.

So dangerous is misinformation that it is described by the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO) as one of the most serious threats to public health.

Misinformation about the origins of the virus, motivations for prevention measures like vaccination, social distancing and face masks fuels vaccine hesitancy, warns associate professor in the Department of Biotechnology at the University of Trinidad and Tobago (UTT) Dr Nicole Ramlachan.

“Even though technically these ‘beliefs’ aren’t based on facts, when the people receive this information which is presented as fact on YouTube or social media, it looks legitimate to the lay person so they are not able to discern the difference between fact and fiction,”ashe says.

For the past 15 months, the geneticist has been heavily involved with Covid-19 research and was a regular panellist on UTT’s webinar series entitled: “Covid-19 vaccination: Hype or Hope?” She has spent much time and effort debunking myths which she admits is an uphill battle.

Conspiracy theories that cast a shadow on the efficacy of vaccines has resulted in substantial negative real-world outcomes, says Ramlachan. She referred to the widespread fear that vaccines cause autism. That conspiracy started in 1997 and spread like wildfire when a prestigious medical journal The Lancet, published a study conducted by a British surgeon who claimed that the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine was increasing autism in British children. The study was debunked and the medical journal retracted the paper. The scientist who presented the data was also stripped of his credentials. However, the damage was done. The conspiracy theory continues to reverberate throughout society and is partly the reason why some parents do not vaccinate their children—a choice which in turn leaves them vulnerable to childhood diseases.

“The consequences of listening to unreliable information and allowing unsubstantiated sources to influence your decision not to get the Covid-19 vaccine, are very serious. You run the risk of becoming seriously ill and dying from Covid-19,” said Ramlachan.

“The mutational ability of the virus becomes greater if the higher percentage of the population is unvaccinated because they act as hosts for the virus to infect, replicate and mutate. There is a much slimmer chance of the virus mutating among vaccinated populations. The real risk is among the unvaccinated populations,” he said.

In the case of the UK and the US, the surge of new cases of the highly transmissible and deadlier Delta variant are occurring among the unvaccinated at a much higher percentage.

Ramlachan laments that persons who base their trust on unreliable information are not only risking their lives but also the lives of those in vulnerable groups who cannot take the vaccine for various medical reasons.

“Remaining unvaccinated poses not only a risk to yourself but to others and it also hampers and hinders the ability of scientists and medical professionals from keeping this virus in check,”she says.

Throughout history vaccines have played an important role in eliminating severe diseases. The benefits of the vaccine far exceed adverse side effects.

“Most man-made drugs and vaccines have side effects. There is no vaccine that is used around the world that is 100 per cent without risk. All the vaccines and medications we take have a risk of serious adverse effects,” says Ramlachan.

“There are those who are concerned about adverse side effects of the Covid-19 vaccine but then, those numbers are very low compared with those who get seriously ill and die from Covid,” she says.

Anti-vax movement

One has to weigh the risk of adverse side effects from the vaccine against the risk of severe illness, hospitalisation or death from Covid or horrible long-haul Covid symptoms, she adds.

Before any vaccine is given to the population it must go through rigorous testing, said Ramlachan. Following the global outbreak of Covid-19, vaccine manufacturers were able to tweak already available technologies used for more isolated viral epidemics in order to develop safe, effective options for our use. Ramlachan emphasises that the safety and efficacy of the vaccines available in T&T have been assessed by the World Health Organisation. Facts about Covid-19 vaccines and any questions related to the virus can be found on WHO’s website.

The Trinidad and Tobago Medical Association agrees with WHO and PAHO that misinformation and disinformation are the greatest dangers to public health in our modern society. The infodemic has long been recognised as a threat, says the public relations officer of the TTMA Dr Keegan Bhaggan. He added that the medical community has been trying to fight this threat especially in the context of the anti-vax movement that predates Covid-19.

The pandemic has brought to the fore the serious effects of misinformation, said Bhaggan. Some recent key examples that illustrate the danger of misinformation include the promotion of the drugs hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin to treat Covid-19 and the various stories of vaccines doing things it cannot do such as “change our DNA”. These examples show how difficult it is to separate truth from fiction, he added.

“That’s why it is best to seek advice and guidance from trusted sources like health officials,” stressed Bhaggan. “Individuals can help reduce the effect of the infodemic by being cautious of information they receive on social media, particularly when that information contradicts the advice from trusted sources.”

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