Russian doctors remain skeptical of COVID-19 vaccine
July 15, 2021
Russia is facing its third coronavirus wave and this is the most fatal yet. As the death toll soars, there are still a good number of Russians who are skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccination, including many doctors.
The number of COVID-19 deaths in Russia continues to break records. There have been over 700 deaths a day since July 6. The third wave, which began in June in Moscow and has spread across the country's other regions, is the most deadly of the pandemic so far.
According to official figures, 28.5 million citizens have already received one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and about 19 million have received two. That is about 13% of the population, yet Nikolai Briko, chief epidemiologist at the Russian Ministry of Health, estimates that at last two-thirds need to be vaccinated in order to get the pandemic under control.
There are currently four vaccines available in Russia: Sputnik V is the most widely available and then there are also Sputnik Light, EpiVacCorona and CoviVac. Foreign vaccines are not yet available in Russia as they have not received official approval — it could be at least a year before they come to market.
Moreover, at least half of adult Russians still reject the vaccine — even if polls indicate growing trust. Many say they want to know more about the results of studies before getting vaccinated, voicing concern over side effects.
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Surveys also show that the personal relationship between doctors and patients is an important factor with regard to what information people trust. A third of Russian doctors themselves say they do not want to be vaccinated and there is no blanket obligation for them to get the jab in Russia.
DW spoke to pro-vaccination doctors about their efforts to get their colleagues on board. Ilya Fominzev, an oncologist and co-founder of the Russian Cancer Prevention Foundation, has crowdfunded an information campaign and established a center offering free counseling.
He recently started giving lectures on the advantages of the vaccine in a café where customers can also get vaccinated. He has many followers on social media but said he often drew comments from doctors disagreeing with him.
"Skeptics either change their mind or hide behind conspiracy theorists," Fominzev explained. "But there are no rational reasons for rejecting the vaccine. Fortunately, conspiracy theorists are a minority among doctors."
Fominzev said doctors often prefer to discuss the consequences of vaccination and antibodies, but says what is more important is whether a vaccine actually works. "In comparison to the benefits, the side effects are so minor that they are not worth all the debate," he said, adding that in his opinion, a doctor's stance on the vaccine was an indicator of how good they were at their profession.
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It is very difficult to persuade doctors, agreed the famous Russian physician Yaroslav Ashikhmin, explaining that he had spoken about the benefits of the vaccine on various public platforms recently and had met a number of doctors.
He said that it was important to be honest and to call a spade a spade: "I say, yes, we do not know what the long-term effects of a vaccine might be. There is not enough research or data. However, all our life we work in uncertainty and we weigh up the risks and benefits. In this case, it is much more likely that the coronavirus will have a negative impact on fertility than the vaccine."
Ashikhmin said that he always reminded doctors they would be acting in the interest of public health by encouraging as many people as possible to get vaccinated. Though there may be side effects, they are the lesser evil when it comes to protecting society as a whole: "Of course, from a patient's point of view it makes sense to huddle down in a basement and only come out when everybody has been vaccinated."
But he says it doesn't make much sense in practice, "We are not presuming that everything is safe but we're saying that this is a war, and we have no alternative to the vaccine."
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He said one particular problem to become apparent during the pandemic was a broad public distrust of science, which he says is fed by a lack of knowledge regarding scientific methods and evidence-based medicine. "If a doctor does not have a clear scientific tool, he will plunge into the abyss of personal experience. And it is very difficult psychologically to admit that one's personal experience might be dreadful and that evidence-based medical data contradicts it."
He added that many Russian doctors often reacted with distrust to new treatments and that the pressure from above to vaccinate without there being enough awareness-raising campaigns and research into side effects had only exacerbated this phenomenon.
Maria Sokolova, chief physician at a Moscow clinic and a representative of United Russia, said she also had to do some persuading: "It is normal. The vaccine came so suddenly and of course it came accompanied by fears. I would not say that there are doctors that reject the vaccine categorically."