Vaccine Hesitancy: Why It Happens and How to Address It

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Vaccines rank among the greatest inventions in modern history. They help save on health care costs and countless lives. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that vaccines save around 2 to 3 million lives each year. They could save even more if not for issues stemming from vaccine hesitancy.

The issue remains one of the most serious threats to global health. So much so that WHO placed vaccine hesitancy on their top 10 list of threats to public health.

What Is Vaccine Hesitancy?

It’s a term used to describe when people delay or refuse vaccines. In some cases, they may hesitate or refuse to get all vaccines or just certain ones.

Some may be willing to get all vaccines but ask to have their vaccine schedule changed or delayed. This may be due to concerns such as side effects that may happen if they’re given at the same time or too close together.

Vaccine Hesitancy and Disease Outbreaks

Far fewer people had heard of coronavirus when WHO released its 2019 report on vaccine hesitancy. Since then, COVID-19 and its vaccines have made a polarizing topic even more so. This may be due to lingering myths about vaccines for this viral illness and other health conditions.

But even before COVID-19 became widely known, this issue had already caused lower rates of vaccine use across the globe and higher rates of infection from preventable illnesses such as measles and polio.

Infectious diseases that were once well-controlled have reemerged in recent years. This includes the measles outbreak that occurred at the Disneyland Resort in December 2014. The outbreak spread to 7 U.S. states along with Canada and Mexico, before it ended in April 2015.

Concerns about polio also resurfaced when a New York resident contracted the disease in June 2022. The young adult, who hadn’t received the polio vaccine, became paralyzed — a permanent symptom of the disease.

The last known U.S. case of polio occurred in 2013. The country was declared free of wild poliovirus [due to natural infection] in 1979. Vaccination efforts in the 1950s and 1960s played a large role in this outcome.

Why Are People Hesitant to Get Vaccinated?

People delay or refuse vaccines for many reasons, a few of which are:

Vaccine Safety Concerns

Safety concerns are among the main reasons that people decline vaccines. For instance, how fast COVID-19 vaccines were made and approved for public use has been a sticking point for many people.

Reports of people getting sick or experiencing known side effects spawns fear. And the fear of unknown vaccine side effects breeds doubt and distrust over vaccine safety.

A growing body of evidence supports the use of COVID-19 vaccines for pregnant and nursing mothers. Yet this matter remains a target for untruths.

COVID-19 and flu shots are part of a slew of vaccines that engender fear, hence hesitancy. But perhaps the most infamous example is the case series published by Andrew Wakefield and 12 of his colleagues in the Lancet.

The authors of the study falsified data, which suggests the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism spectrum disorder. The scientific community has debunked this false connection and the study has been retracted.

But not before people who were skeptical or against vaccine use ran with this dubious data. This caused a frenzy that’s still whirring today around the safety of the MMR vaccine.

Misinformation and Disinformation

Misinformation and disinformation (false and misleading information) thrive in the online world. Vaccine hesitancy has been around since health experts first introduced vaccines.

But digital platforms such as social media shine a glaring spotlight on the phenomenon. People share information and form trusted connections with like-minded others on these platforms.

Social media provides a forum for people to share unbridled opinions quickly and widely. It doesn’t matter how misinformed, disinformed, biased or fringed these may be.

Moreover, it can be daunting and confusing to navigate an ever-changing landscape where false and misleading information travels the same communication pathways as scientifically vetted information. It makes sense then why misinformation and disinformation have been cited as being among the chief reasons people waver on getting vaccines.

Religious Beliefs

Many faiths encourage their members to get vaccines or don’t have doctrines that speak against them. One study found that confidence in the safety, effectiveness and importance of vaccines tends to be higher in countries where religion plays a prominent role in everyday life. On the far side of the spectrum, some extremist sects urge their followers to skip certain vaccines.

Also, some groups cite religious taboos and restrictions among the reasons for not getting vaccinated. These include vaccines that contain forbidden ingredients or aren’t prepared in a way that respects their values and beliefs.

Other faiths believe God’s will dictates when and why disease happens, and that vaccines contradict this. Still, others believe God provides divine healing and protection from disease.

Some believe certain vaccines, such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, support being promiscuous. Getting a sexually transmitted disease, such as HPV, is viewed as punishment for these choices.

Myths About Vaccines Made From Aborted Fetal Cells

Lab-grown cells are used in some current vaccines. But they don’t contain any human deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) or fetal tissue or cells.

They descend from cells derived from 2 abortions performed in the 1960s. These original cells have copied themselves many times to form new cells, called fetal cell lines. Some vaccines are made by growing pathogens [such as viruses] in these lab-grown fetal cell lines.

The vaccine purification process removes almost all cell line components. It also breaks down any DNA that’s left.

Distrust of Health Experts and Agencies

Some people prefer complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) over Western medicine. Certain CAM approaches may not promote vaccine use.

Others feel financial players hype up vaccines to bolster profits. These include the makers of these vaccines.

Still, others are turned off by advice from health experts that seems to flip-flop too often. They don’t believe this waffling advice is driven by sound information.

What Are the Health Risks Tied to Vaccine Hesitancy?

Risks can include higher rates of illness and death that could be prevented. Vaccines aren’t foolproof and can’t be given to all people.

Some have health issues which keep them from getting vaccines. Instead, they rely on herd immunity for protection.

This happens when at least 80% of people in the community:

  • Get vaccinated against the disease or
  • Acquire natural immunity after they contract and forge an immune response to it

Herd immunity can slow down and even stop the spread of various infections. But vaccine hesitancy can impede this process and allow disease to maintain its stronghold in at-risk communities.

How to Address Vaccine Hesitancy

To help others overcome vaccine hesitancy, aim to:

Converse Without Lecturing, Arguing or Debating

Listen closely to, reflect on and address their thoughts and concerns respectfully.

Empathize Instead of Pushing or Blaming

Don’t make them feel guilty, silly, stupid or self-conscious about their viewpoints. Honor where they’re coming from and try to understand from their vantage point.

Provide Clear Information Without Going Overboard

Keep it simple and don’t get bogged down by too much science speak. Share findings from 1 strong study [rather than many]. You’re less likely to overwhelm them this way.

Use Humor

Keep it lighthearted. This can help tame tense situations or talk that’s become too heavy.

Talk Story

Talk about your own vaccine stories. Share your experiences and how they changed your health for the better.

Stoke Selflessness

Stir their desire to protect others. Remind them how we all share responsibility for protecting others. This may motivate them to get vaccinated themselves.

Stay in the Middle Lane

You likely won’t sway people with entrenched mindsets. Those teetering in the middle may just need a bit more help making up their minds.

Practice Patience and Help Out

Keep the conversation flowing and open for as long and as many times as they need to make up their minds. Also, offer to help with what they need. This could be sharing more trustworthy resources or a ride to their doctor’s office or vaccination station.

Respect Choices

Let them know you’re good with whatever they decide and mean it. Don’t hold grudges or keep nagging them. Let it go and keep the friendship healthy and strong, as they may come to you again for help with vaccines in the future.

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