Friday, October 21, 2022

Bad news bears on life choices (vaccine hesitancy)

Vaccine hesitancy, a reluctance or refusal to be vaccinated, probably began when Jenner invented vaccination over two centuries ago. Vaccines have largely eliminated scourges such as smallpox and polio and greatly reduced the rates of other infectious diseases including influenza. Anti-vaccination (anti-vax) stances stem from small, well-established risks of side-effects (managed by a compensation program) and big, vague worries about unrelated, even disproven associations with other maladies. COVID-19 vaccines were developed rapidly and rushed into production, potentially raising valid safely concerns.  However, any valid concerns were allayed when the COVID-19 vaccines were tested and proven safe and effective (Walsh 2020). 

The cable television show Fox News Channel (FNC) amplified concerns about COVID-19 vaccines and downplayed their benefits.  This study of viewership and vaccination covered ~2,750 counties (out of ~3,000 total) in 47 (of 50) US states documents that FNC viewers refused COVID-19 vaccination more often than the viewers of its competitors Microsoft-National Broadcasting Company (MSNBC) or Cable News Network (CNN) (Figure 2, shown).

Figure 2. Effect of network viewership on weekly vaccination rates, 2021

A key question is whether FNC influenced its viewers to refuse vaccination (a cause) or rather were anti-vax viewers attracted to FNC’s messaging, a consequence of playing to its audience.  The investigators used positions in cable channel listing as ‘exogenous shifters’ of viewership (Martin & Yurukoglu 2017).  Viewers are induced into watching more or less of a channel by variation in its position up or down the listing (Fig S3).  They found that “exogenously higher FNC viewership due to channel position causes lower vaccine uptake”.  They show that hesitancy was raised by FNC but not by competitors MSNBC or CNN (Fig 1). Moreover, resistance to vaccination against COVID-19 but not seasonal flu… causal…. Using the channels’ position in the guides.

Their “results imply that watching one additional hour of [FNC] per week for the average household reduces the number of vaccinations by 0.35–0.76 per 100 people”, which would account for a lot of ‘excess deaths’ in many households. Not surprising when “vaccine bad” was said so much more often on FNC than the other channels (Fig S7)! Although they found that FNC’s influence was mostly on those under 65 years old, who are at lower risk severe disease, those younger people are reservoirs of virus for infecting older people. Data-driven lawyers representing survivors of FNC victims could bring class action lawsuits. 

Pinna, M., Picard, L. & Goessmann, C. Cable news andCOVID-19 vaccine uptake. Sci Rep 12, 16804 (2022). 

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