Anti-vaxx groups target GPs as efforts to derail rollout continue

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

29/07/2021 4:31:56 PM

From encouraging people to book fake vaccine appointments to aggressive online attacks, the movement appears to be getting increasingly destructive.

Social media messages.
Anti-vaxxers appear to be ramping up efforts to derail the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

A Facebook page, run by a Melbourne-based anti-vaccination advocate, is encouraging people to make a booking for a COVID-19 vaccine and not show up, in the hope doses will be thrown out.
The post, which was liked by more than 130 people and shared 43 times, received comments of praise.
‘Great idea! Every jab wasted is a life saved!’, one commenter wrote, while another replied enthusiastically: ‘Just made a booking!!’
It comes amid reports of hundreds of COVID vaccines going to waste in Victoria, with emergency physician Dr Stephen Parnis saying that some general practices and state vaccination hubs are reporting 20% of their daily vaccine appointments are no shows.
‘The obvious concern is [that] we’re not taking advantage of the limited supplies we have at the moment,’ he told the Herald Sun.
‘That slows the rate of uptake and speeding up that rate is the only way to get out of this COVID-19 nightmare.’
Geelong-based GP and Co-Deputy Chair of the RACGP’s Victorian Faculty, Dr Bernard Shiu, who is involved in the vaccine rollout, told newsGP that people trying to undermine efforts is ‘very disappointing’.

‘There has been a lot of resistance towards the vaccination program and that’s based on a lot of misconceptions and misinformation that is floating around on the internet,’ he said.
‘It’s really causing a lot of harm to a lot of people that really need to be vaccinated.’
Dr Shiu said in his network of around 60 practice owners, people making false bookings ‘is not happening that often luckily’, which he attributes to the robust booking systems.
‘We do get a lot of their data and we track them down when they don’t show up,’ he said.
‘Their identity can be revealed pretty quickly so it’s not something that is going to be too successful anyway, even if they want to use that to sabotage the whole campaign.’
Melbourne GP Dr Preeya Alexander, who uses social media to combat health misinformation, says the posts are both ‘appalling and selfish’.
‘What’s devastating is that these individuals are willing to put others at risk,’ she told newsGP.
‘You’re denying other people a vaccine that can reduce the risk of being hospitalised or dying from COVID-19 … because of your perceived cause. That’s atrocious and just unbelievable.’

A Facebook post encouraging people to book vaccine appointments with the intention of not showing up has been called out as ‘harmful’ and ‘selfish’. (Image: Facebook)  

Dr Alexander says what particularly concerns her is that opinion is being used to override science and facts.
‘Sometimes there is no room for opinion; if the temperature says 37.5°C it is a fact, that is it,’ she said.
‘But these movements have their fixed narrative [and] they will literally take anything from a science-based post, and they will manipulate it and distort it.
‘It’s actually malicious and destructive, and that’s exactly what we are seeing here where you are having these individuals and these groups now who are directly trying to undermine general practice and the vaccine rollout.’
Dr Alexander has found herself personally at the centre of heavy trolling for sharing evidence-based information about COVID vaccines online.
‘There are a lot of threats of violence, there are racist attacks; it’s constant. Saying [things like] “murderer, injecting people with poison”, that I’m “meeting my maker”,’ she said.
‘And these groups are very effective. They share the posts to try and get their 35,000 followers on to me and it’s the same relentless messaging.’
While Dr Alexander is now taking the approach of blocking and deleting any unsolicited messages, she says some do warrant follow up with the police.
‘I now am able to rationalise and see it for what it is; I’m clearly hurting this movement because my messaging is effective, they wouldn’t target me [otherwise]. But it certainly takes a toll,’ she said.
‘I can see why a lot of health professionals … would stay out of this realm, because it is exhausting. But it needs to be done.’

Vaccine-appointments-Screenshots.jpgSome of the hateful messages sent to GP Dr Preeya Alexander on Instagram. (Image: Instagram) 

Both Dr Shiu and Dr Alexander agree that there is a sense of anxiety in the community, and that continued changes to the vaccine rollout, while necessary, do appear to have been used as leverage by some.
The latest 2021 Vaccine Hesitancy Report Card by the Melbourne Institute, however, has shown that vaccine hesitancy is on the decline, with outbreaks believed to have had a major impact.
Among Australia’s adult population, hesitancy has dropped from 33% at the end of May down to 21.5% as of 23 July. NSW had the lowest rate of hesitancy, down from 32.9% to 14.6%.
The report also found the number of Australians still unsure about getting vaccinated dropped from 15% to 9.7%. Only 11.8% still remain unwilling to get vaccinated, compared to 18% two months ago.
Dr Shiu, who has also encountered hesitancy at his clinic, says it is important to differentiate between those who are hesitant and those who are anti-vaxxers.
‘Anti-vax, that term is about all vaccination; they are very hard to convince, and so we need to respect their opinion. But if they impose their opinion by sabotaging the campaign and going on protests that is very disappointing,’ he said.  
‘There will [also] be some that are all for vaccination … but they’re having problems with the new vaccines because they want to wait and see more data. And of course we will try to give them a chance to ask questions or update them with the latest advice and information to help them to understand little by little.’

Dr Alexander has had a similar experience online, and says among the hateful comments, she receives an overwhelming positive response from people who value access to her science-backed insights.
‘If we don’t talk and if we are fearful, the response is then “Well the doctors are quiet”. And when we’re silent, it allows the misinformation to fester,’ she said.
‘But there is a percentage that won’t listen to reason. These are the people who are pushing this cause on social media; they’re not amenable to discussion, they’re not amenable to the science – and sadly, now quite dangerous with acts like this.
‘They are directly undermining public health initiatives and … they are putting others at risk. So what are the consequences to these people? There’s got to be serious repercussions on social media for movements like this. We need to adapt and evolve.’
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Dr Anthony McMullen   2/08/2021 6:22:17 PM

Good on you Dr Alexander! You keep on pushing out the scientific facts and we will support you!! Anti-vaxxers are a lot like zealous religious fanatics. They are going to hold onto a false belief despite solid evidence to the contrary and we have little chance of changing this delusion. The responsible, sensible majority should ignore them, and maybe the advantage of herd immunity that we confer to them will give them time to realise their mistakes.