What experts say about calming vaccine fears

Engagement matters. So does building trust, transparency and communicating via multiple channels.

Monika Warzecha January 12, 2021
vaccine

A medical worker gets the vaccine against COVID-19. Amir Levy/Getty / Getty Images

Everyone from doctors to marketing specialists are working towards finding ways to ease fears and guide people towards getting a COVID-19 vaccination in the hopes of preventing the futher spread of the highly infectious disease.

Though health officals and agencies around the globe are doing their best to inform the public about the safety and efficacy of the approved vaccines, some people — even individuals who work in long-term care or other parts of the health industry —  are reluctant to get a vaccine.

Here are some of the ways experts are addressing vaccine questions and concerns amid the pandemic:

Diversity matters

Nadia Alam is a family physician, anesthetist and a health system policy analyst. She’s studied and worked in a variety of communities across Canada: from remote Northern communities to multicultural suburbs of big cities.

Alam writes about tailoring vaccine messaging in Healthy Debate: “Clear, reliable information about the vaccine should be relayed via multiple channels, using multilingual, culturally appropriate and easily accessible strategies to support decision-making.”

She notes that many people, including immigrants, tend to rely on friends, family and the Internet for health info before talking to their doctor. Some immigrants may originally hail from countries where there is little government transparency and trust. Or where care is only available to the priviliged few.

In the U.S., there is signficant vaccine hesitancy among Black Americans, some of whom have had their trust shattered by historic incidents such as the horrific Tuskegee Study. From 1932 to 1972,  United States Public Health Service and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention studied syphilis in Black men. Subjects were told they were being treated, but received no treatment. Researchers didn’t even offer penicillin to the men once it was known to cure the disease. In Canada in the 1940s and 1950s, government bureaucrats used Indigenous children in residential schools to study malnutrition, giving some children supplements and vitamins, while others were left as “untreated” controls.

Black, Indigenous and other people of colour also experience racism in the Canadian health care system in current times, through bias or systemic inequalities.

Alam believes that to build trust, “a strategy that includes the expertise and reach of religious leaders, community influencers and family doctors will be more persuasive and relevant.”

Dr. Nikhila Juvvadi, the chief clinical officer at Chicago’s Loretto Hospital, told NPR that connecting people who are hestistant with someone of their race, gender, or age group can be helpful, bascially telling them, “Look, this person took it a week ago, this person took it two days ago — why don’t you both sit there for a minute and talk to each other, and maybe she had the same concerns as you.”

Getting personal

A health official standing at a podium in front of a TV camera isn’t necessarily going to set everyone at ease. Annamaria Carusi, a research associate at the Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London, sounded the warning even before any vaccines were approved. She wrote about the importance of engagement for The Conversation:

One-way science communication, expecting the public to passively accept what they are told by politicians and scientists, will be a serious mistake. To combat each form of skepticism, transparency about any forthcoming vaccine is a minimal requirement. Beyond this, there needs to be a meaningful engagement with people’s concerns.

For those with safety concerns, this means being open about the safety testing of the vaccine and each of its ingredients. Authorities should participate in discussions with these people about benefits and risks, who will be most affected by both, and how to balance them.

Tara Moriarty, an associate professor and infectious diseases researcher at University of Toronto, told CBC Radio that many people are still grappling with the information about the virus and vaccine.

“People haven’t had enough support and information — and the ability to talk to people — because everything is happening so fast for them to feel like they can make a good decision.” Moriarty and other scientists and physicians are fielding questions on regular video calls on Zoom that anyone can join in an effort to help people understand how things work.

Analogies and observation

The New England Journal of Medicine recently published a study looking at how behavioral economics and consumer behavior theory could encourage people to get the vaccine. This is less about quelling fears and more about savy communications.

Consumer research experts from North Carolina State Univesrity outlined a number of possibilities, including increasing observability and being careful about language. For example, some people are concerned about how, exactly, mRNA vaccines work. Researchers suggest using an analogy like this basic description that avoids jargon: “one can explain that mRNA vaccines are not weak doses of the virus, but instead are ‘instruction manuals’ that teach the immune system how to defend itself.”

The press release from the university notes  that “studies have shown consumers’ ability to observe others’ choices can increase an innovation’s rate of adoption. Distributing tokens, such as Livestrong-style bracelets or stickers, or digital badges, such as social media profile frames, may prove to be effective in increasing consumer buy-in.” It makes a certain amount of sense. If people can see signs of something becoming more common, they may feel better about that option.

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