Since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, AmCham has organised a series of online events to highlight the medical aspects of the pandemic. A mini survey conducted by AmCham in April revealed that two-thirds of its member companies believed it was the responsibility of employers to give their staff information about preventive measures and vaccination.
The panellists were Primarius Dr Biljana Carević MD, Epidemiologist at the National Clinical Centre, and Dr Iris Žeželj, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Belgrade, Department of Psychology, Chair of Social Psychology.
Dr Carević briefly explained the evolution of the pandemic, highlighted the key features of the virus and some of its major strains and mutations, contagiousness, case numbers in recent months, and Covid management measures. She noted that the vaccines currently available in Serbia – Sinopharm, Sputnik V, AstraZeneca, Pfizer BioNTech, and Moderna – had all been approved by both the World Health Organisation and the Serbian Medicines and Medical Devices Agency, adding that more than 270 vaccine candidates were also in development, of which 91 were undergoing clinical trials, with 27 at the third stage, meaning that their approval could be expected shortly. Dr Carević also explained why each vaccine, the same as any other medication, went through extensive testing to ensure its safety.
Vaccination is expected to build robust immunity that provides efficient protection from illness. Dr Carević said that a vaccine’s most valuable characteristic was its immunogenicity, its ability to promote long-term and humoral immune response, which protects the recipient from developing ‘clinical symptoms’, or a serious form of the disease. ‘All vaccines approved by the World Health Organisation are substantially immunogenic’, said Dr Carević, whilst the most common adverse reactions were soreness at injection site, chills, headache, muscle aches and pains, joint pain, and fever. Professor Žeželj presented key findings about the Serbian population’s attitudes towards vaccination and the reasons for vaccine hesitancy. Readiness to take the vaccine depended on a large variety of factors, such as age, gender, job, and the like, she said, adding that the key question that needed to be answered was what prevented the population from opting to take the vaccine in greater numbers even though immunisation is readily available to all.
Dr Žeželj noted that readiness to be immunised has been increasing in Serbia, currently standing at 60 percent, whilst the proportion of the population absolutely opposed to vaccination was small, at no more than 7 percent. ‘We tend to overestimate this proportion of the population opposed to vaccination as these individuals are highly visible and voice their opinions loudly because they often feel threatened by the establishment and the media, so they look for avenues to express their views’, Dr Žeželj explained.
A common error people made when deciding whether to be immunised was an error of omission: they believe they are safer if they do nothing than if they do anything. Dr Žeželj suggested outreach efforts and communication to help the public understand the positive effects of vaccination and the adverse ones that may occur if they are not vaccinated.
Poor risk assessment is yet another reason that leads people to postpone vaccination. This is best illustrated by the attitude that if something is even the least bit risky, it should be avoided. Professor Žeželj emphasised that, in today’s world, nearly every behaviour carried some risk, and that we had to learn to cope with this environment. It was also important to understand that not everything was equally risky, and that appropriate information and knowledge were the only true answer.
The panellists endeavoured to make the vaccination process more accessible to the audience by using examples of current and historical practice from throughout the world. Dr Carević and Dr Žeželj agreed that it was highly important to continue monitoring the effectiveness and efficiency of the vaccines and appropriately communicate all findings, and that the whole world was well on the way to getting answers to all its questions.