Two years after COVID-19 turned the world upside down, vaccine resisters continue to complicate efforts to bring the pandemic under control. In the US, the birthplace of the most effective COVID vaccines, a whopping 19 percent of people over the age of 5 have not even received a primary vaccine.
Although the Never Vaxxer crowd is not a politically heterogeneous group, its supporters are united in their refusal to consider basic facts. This has drawn enormous ridicule from many (including myself) who are stunned by their willful ignorance.
However, some of us who sit comfortably on the side of science with the Sapere-Aude enlightenment crowd also harbor a few cherished and utterly untrue health beliefs. How many of them. And these aren’t weird superstitions like wearing a certain shirt to secure a World Series win, but really stupid, you’re not serious stuff.
For example, believing that eating lots of blueberries prevents cancer.
In the ever-expanding universe of commercialized vanity, the hodgepodge of “look great, feel great, be great, live forever and stay great” products is mostly implausible, disproven, often costly and occasionally dangerous. Faithfulness to these beliefs is based on faith, not science—even among people motivated to “do their own research.” Googling is not a science.
Consider the unlikely tale of antioxidants – led by the admirable blueberry and Arriviste pomegranate – which many believe can prevent aging, cancer, hardening of the arteries, dementia and so on.
First of all, as a general rule, any remedy that claims to prevent or cure every damn bad thing on the planet probably doesn’t prevent or cure anything at all. And second, the atomic world of antioxidants, free radicals, and the movement of electrons from here to there to repair DNA damage is an intricate tangle of chemistry — better suited to a university thesis than a breezy explanation of why your skin is so good looks.
There are many human clinical studies that unfortunately show no benefit of this approach to improve health. A large and influential study not only showed no benefit against heart disease or cancer, but also an increase in heart problems in those who received vitamin E instead of placebo. Many additional studies have been conducted or are underway and are being pursued by the federal government, including research into the effects of antioxidants on stroke, heart disease, aging and dementia.
And it’s not just antioxidants.
Beloved and disproved “theories” of maintaining health cover much more territory than devouring industrial quantities of fresh fruit. For example, there’s a persistent belief that taking vitamin C can help prevent colds—although study after study has disproved this (although vitamin C does play a role in shortening cold symptoms once the sniffles start).
Then there is the myth that acupuncture is said to treat chronic back pain. Here, the evidence consistently shows efficacy for immediate pain relief, but no benefit for treating chronic conditions.
There are several repositories for this type of scientific information that examine popular treatments. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, an entire federal agency, regularly publishes new work and also offers grants to follow up on the role of various non-Big Pharma approaches to maintaining health. In addition, the venerable Cochrane Reviews collects and analyzes all clinical studies addressing a specific health problem to reach a collective consensus. Many physicians turn to Cochrane when evidence from years of study seems to point in opposite directions.
Nonetheless, many remain. It’s reassuring to think that more carrots or glasses of water can prevent disease and, as you know, are harmless. So why not keep the faith! Facts (often) damn!
“A person who refuses to be vaccinated against a deadly, easily transmitted virus could be contributing to a death – their own or someone else’s – while eating a lot of blueberries does no discernible harm to anyone. ”
Sure, the parallels between anti-vaccine and antioxidant enthusiasts, while real, do not equate to comparable importance or disruption between the two groups. This is not a “both sides are doing it and therefore everyone is equally to blame” argument. There are major differences – including individual and public health implications – from this “my body, my choice” approach to decision-making.
A person who refuses to be vaccinated against a deadly, easily transmitted virus could contribute to a death – his own or someone else’s – while eating a lot of blueberries does no apparent harm to anyone.
But more importantly, the pursuit of more and better antioxidants, vitamins, and superfoods doesn’t affect anyone in the neighborhood. In contrast, refusal to vaccinate has a major impact on others in the community—not just family and friends, but someone who is a friend of a friend’s roommate’s elderly grandmother. SARS-CoV-2 is an infectious disease that requires a community effort to control, the concept of which is anathema to those who insist on prioritizing the individual over all else.
It is this blatant and cold-hearted anti-comunitarianism that annoys so many people.
Experts on human behavior have a name for mankind’s temporary refusal to accept fact: “perseverance in belief.” And at least in the vaccine hesitancy studies conducted so far, education can always backfire and increase resistance rather than mitigate it.
This makes a difficult problem even more difficult. At the moment we have two basic but irreconcilable facts. First, vaccination is necessary to control the pandemic. Second, trying to persuade unwilling people to get vaccinated is ineffective. But like those whose thinking is warped by persistence of faith, we continue to hope that this time perhaps we will be the tipping point for vaccine acceptance.
But we won’t.
Which brings us back to the last resort: scaremongering, also known as fear appeals. For those mired in a universe of alternative facts, this is the only way forward.
Though harsh and troubling, the facts are clear that the approach is effective. Even for blueberry enthusiasts, I would imagine.