BY MAGDALENA OSUMI, STAFF WRITER
Will vaccines against COVID-19 cause infertility in women? Or will a dose make someone sick because the live coronavirus is inside the shot? After all, aren’t the vaccines unsafe because they were developed too quickly?
Such rumors and false claims have been spreading online, especially on social media, spurring anti-vaccination attitudes among Japanese young people, who have been left until last when it comes to the rollout of COVID-19 vaccine shots.
To dispel such myths, virology experts and the health ministry have taken up the mission of persuading the public to protect themselves from the coronavirus through inoculation, and in doing so make up for what turned out to be lost time in setting out the benefits and safety of the shots. In Japan, vaccinations are not mandatory.
The move shows the messages sent by the government and its top officials, which were aimed at encouraging the public to get vaccinated, did not resonate with younger generations.
To dispel the myths surrounding potential side effects, the health ministry has launched a site with detailed factual information about them, with the initiative especially targeting young women concerned about the effects of the vaccines on fertility.
“There is absolutely no scientific evidence that (messenger RNA) vaccines cause infertility,” Shihoko Aizawa, an expert in communicable diseases, wrote on the website to debunk one of the most viral rumors. “For some reason, there is a long-standing myth that vaccination causes infertility, but there is no evidence that vaccination has caused infertility in any of the vaccines used to date.”
The government has promised that all people eligible for the vaccines will be able to get their shots by November. But lingering vaccine hesitancy, in particular among youths, could undermine the goal.
In an online survey by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government published Aug. 26 that covered 1,000 Tokyoites from their 20s to 70s, those age 15 to 19 and people in their 20s and 30s expressed reluctance to get vaccinated. For instance, 27.6% of girls between the ages 15 and 19 said that they were not willing to get inoculated. As many as 39.5% of the total respondents claimed that, based on information they had found, COVID-19 vaccines did not seem to work against the virus, while some claimed the shots may leave them with long-lasting side effects.
In a video message, the health ministry explained the possible side effects and assured viewers that those symptoms should go away after a few days, suggesting that they see a doctor if symptoms remain unchanged while stressing that such a situation is rare. The ministry officials warned, however, that while vaccines are the most effective tool to protect against infections, those who have been inoculated should continue to mask up and abide by social distancing and other preventive rules to protect themselves and others.
The findings also showed that people, especially those in their 20s, gathered information about the pandemic and vaccines mostly from platforms such as Twitter or Line, with 46.2% and 37.9% citing them as a source, respectively. Around 44% of teenagers relied on Twitter for gathering news on the pandemic.
The chairman of the government subcommittee on the nation’s COVID-19 response, Shigeru Omi, has been at odds with the nation’s leaders in recent months regarding the relaxation of coronavirus emergency curbs and the handling of the Tokyo Games. He has warned officials that measures that are too lax could confuse the public and make them complacent regarding the virus.
Knowing that many young people turn to social media platforms such as Instagram for the latest news updates, Omi has taken direct aim at young people. From the beginning of September, he began sharing videos and posts and even began to livestream to share information about the vaccines and threats related to COVID-19, as well as other ways to prevent and protect oneself from getting sick.
As the government’s top adviser on the pandemic, Omi has often played the role of the bearer of bad news following coronavirus task force meetings. In a video message posted on his Instagram account on Sept. 3, however, he lamented that the government and its anti-coronavirus task force have failed to engage in a dialogue with young people.
In earlier stages of the pandemic, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga took to Twitter to reach out to the public in the hope of conveying the government’s policies through one of the most frequently used social media platforms.
“Until now, we haven’t really had a chance to have a real dialogue with young people, and even though we’ve shared plenty of messages, I felt that they never reached the youth,” Omi said of his reason for using Instagram. “I’m hoping that here I will have a chance to find a way to communicate.”