Public distrust in COVID-19 was not solved by the debate on childhood vaccination in Israel

The lack of transparency from the Ministry of Health during the COVID-19 pandemic could not be resolved with a five-hour discussion on vaccines for children.

Last week, the ministry hosted for the first time an open discussion on issues related to vaccinating children ages five to 11 with the Pfizer vaccine, and is debating whether or not to open this week’s discussion in which a final decision.

Health Ministry officials have said they are considering closing this week’s debate because committee members want to be able to speak freely and present all relevant arguments without fear of potentially backlash from the anti-vaccination community.

“Unfortunately, the discourse on the part of the anti-vaccines is extreme at times, and even incomprehensible,” the director general of the Ministry of Health, Nachman Ash, said Sunday morning in an interview with 103 FM. “We are in discussions and thinking about how to handle it. The discussion is different and our committee is different than the Food and Drug Administration. “

While most experts believe it is important to live-stream the debate again, doing so is “just a small piece of a puzzle made of non-transparent pieces” that has been placed by the Ministry of Health during the pandemic, according to the Dr. Tehilla Shwartz-Altshuler, Senior Researcher at the Israel Institute for Democracy.

He said the decision to open the debate was an effort to appease some parts of the public rather than an actual step toward greater transparency, something that is needed if the country is to ask parents to vaccinate their young children.

While at the beginning of the crisis, Israeli health officials and the public seemed to pay special attention to data and science, two years later, the country has returned to a culture of post-truth.

The Oxford Dictionary defines this phenomenon as “related to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to personal emotions and beliefs.”

In other words, the data presented in these debates is simply being used by listeners to strengthen their own opinions.

People who wholeheartedly believe in the decision to prod children listen to the data and become even more convinced that vaccinating children between the ages of five and 11 is important. Those who are against giving the injections will not be convinced otherwise.

Empty vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Vaccine for Children Ages 5-11 are seen in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, USA, on November 6, 2021. (Credit: REUTERS / HANNAH BEIER)

And the people sitting in the middle, who are in favor of vaccination but nervous about inoculating their young children, are largely ignored, Shwartz-Altshuler said.

She said the Health Ministry developed a lack of confidence in the past 18 months that has led to deep divisions among the public who are unsure where to look for accurate information.

For one thing, when the FDA approved Pfizer vaccines, the ministry asked people to trust them because the FDA had given them the green light. Israelis flocked to vaccination complexes and the country carried out the fastest vaccination campaign in the world.

But while the ministry promoted the FDA’s procedures, it did not hold to a similar standard and did not hold transparent discussions about vaccines for Israelis, without conflicts of interest and in a way that is open and understandable to the public.

“The discussions themselves were not transparent and the protocols for discussions and decision making were not used,” Shwartz-Altshuler said.

THE MOVEMENT to give everyone over 12 years of age booster doses based on very little available data, even if it can be argued that the decision turned out to be correct, called into question the ministry’s decision-making process.

There were also issues of conflict of interest.

“The fact that the Ministry of Health is a regulator, decision maker and researcher, that is a problem,” he emphasized. “This is what caused the crisis of confidence.”

He said that the fact that those who make the decisions are their own researchers and “sign all those articles in luxury magazines” is a mistake and makes it difficult for the public to trust the process.

The Health Ministry signed the trade agreement with Pfizer, oversaw the administration of the vaccines through health funds, and then wrote about the results of the country’s campaign.

There has also been a problem accessing the raw data.

The Ministry of Health has shared articles and presentations, but has not provided raw data in many circumstances when requested by the public or academics.

“The default should be that the data belongs to the public,” said Professor Hagai Levine, president of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians.

When the pandemic began, the ministry did not have a system to provide data, he explained. And, although it has improved, in more than 18 months there is still not enough effort being made to professionally anonymize the data and allow researchers to access and investigate.

“It takes people to prepare the data and transfer it to the relevant people, and it costs money,” he said, adding that the issue has not been properly prioritized. “It is a matter of transparency and professionalism.”

It would also give other doctors and scientists the opportunity to offer better suggestions and to collaborate in the efforts being made to combat COVID-19 in Israel.

Transparency, he said, not only means opening a discussion and allowing the various participants to speak, but also listening to their views and integrating them into your response.

He said he has empathy for his colleagues on the vaccination committee who fear violent threats, but the answer is to stop the violent and not avoid a crucial open discussion.

“The public should know who is sitting around the tables in these discussions, what each person is saying and how they vote,” Shwartz-Altshuler said. “But again, this is only a small part of what needs to change, and it is not enough.”

The Ministry of Health must share the complete data sets on which it bases its policies. They should share the full protocols for this discussion and the upstream and downstream discussions and decisions that are being made on behalf of the public.

And the ministry should commit to developing a better system for tracking side effects and sharing them in real time and in full with the public.

“The bottom line,” Shwartz-Altshuler said, “the vaccination discussion is important, but it’s not what is going to move the needle.”

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