Campaigns that clearly translate and communicate the growing volume of open vaccine science must be delivered as a matter of urgency to address hesitancy and misinformation around COVID-19 vaccines, an expert panel has heard.
Speaking at an event organised by SciDev.Net, a group of health experts agreed that fear of conspiracies or adverse health effects could hold back the campaign to end the pandemic, as vaccination programmes against the virus are rolled out in many countries.
Concern about vaccine hesitancy – where people are suspicious about vaccinations or reject them outright – is growing worldwide, with the WHO identifying it as one of the top ten global health threats in 2019.
Natalia Pasternak, president of Brazil’s science communication institute Instituto Questão de Ciência, believes vaccine hesitancy is on the rise in her country—where she said 22 per cent of people now mistrust vaccines, compared to just 3 per cent in April 2019.
In Brazil, she said, government misinformation and political propaganda have eroded trust in healthcare services, so scientists must step up and talk honestly about issue such as clinical trial success rates and vaccine side effects.
“During the pandemic, people have suddenly been exposed to technical terms they’ve never heard before,” she told the audience during the event on 17 December. “You have a whole population following vaccine trials as if they are watching the football cup, but they haven’t been prepared to understand the content they are following.”
Alison Wiyeh, a research assistant at the University of Washington’s Strategic Analysis, Research and Training Center, said she had experienced the same issue in Cameroon, where minority groups already feeling marginalised are especially susceptible to vaccine misinformation. She believes that efforts to communicate vaccine safety should be focused on women.
“The person taking those who need to be vaccinated to the healthcare centre will probably be a woman,” she said. “If women decide they don’t want the vaccine, it’s not going to happen. We already have data that women may be more hesitant and are questioning more.”
The panel agreed that there is little information on global levels of vaccine hesitancy. But the issue is as old as vaccines themselves, said David Heymann, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, via a video message. He pointed out the first smallpox and polio vaccination programmes also faced strong opposition.
“Mistrust in COVID vaccinations will come from a group of anti-vaxxers who are just against any immunisation whatsoever… There is a whole group of people who are being influenced by them, who can be converted to trust in a vaccine,” he told the audience.
To do so, scientists must communicate honestly about a vaccine’s risks and benefits, and be transparent about its development. Wiyeh pointed out that the speed at which such information is delivered is also crucial, as it becomes a lot harder to change people’s minds once they have been exposed to misinformation.
But Zaichen Mallace-Lu, strategic programme manager in public engagement at medical research foundation Wellcome, said there was another strategy to improve trust in vaccines—by ensuring people have access to quality healthcare. He advocated against “immunisation at all costs”, saying that COVID-19 health interventions must be built around community concerns and eventually be integrated into local services.
“A lot hinges on the point of availability,” he told the event. “A good service experience feeds into confidence and motivation—and creates positive feedback to encourage further vaccination.”