5 tips for handling vaccine hesitancy

Fear of vaccines is old. How old?

“The Dangerous and Sinful Practice of Inoculation” was the topic of a 1772 sermon delivered in England by Reverend Edmund Massey. So do the math: That’s almost 250 years of anti-vaxxer rhetoric.

Despite the tenacity of the anti-vax movement, it remains the case that herd immunity for highly contagious diseases (like measles, for one) demands inoculation rates of as high as 96%, and if healthcare and health policy leaders are trying to get there, they have some convincing to do, even as the battle between pro- and anti-vaxxers rages on social media.

Here’s a strategy for how to approach the issue and the people near the heart of it.

Not all anti-vaxxers are the same

A very good 2020 study by McGill dissected the beliefs underlying the anti-vax movement. A summary:

“Vaccines cause autism.” This hoax (based on false research by a former British doctor whose work was funded by people suing vaccine manufacturers) has been disproven many times over, but the belief is stubborn.

“It’s against my religion.” This is sometimes based on vaccine ingredients (porcine gelatin as a stabilizer), other times based on “inappropriate meddling in the work of God.” Religions have a range of views on vaccines.

“I don’t trust Big Pharma or Big Government.” Conspiracy theorists represent a significant portion of the anti-vax crowd, especially in the U.S. and Canada. Their apprehensions are a conflation of fears about issues such as bioweapons, embedded human tracking devices, and DNA mutation.

“This is about personal liberty.” People on both extremes of the political spectrum often embrace the “keep your laws off my body” sentiment.

“Vaccines cause more harm than good.” This belief is most often linked to the live-virus form of inoculation and the “pursuit of purity.”

Message strategy: Address confused consumers

Let’s agree that vehement anti-vaxxers will not be getting the COVID vaccine no matter how persuasive the communications are from healthcare and public health organizations.

The people who are “on the bubble” are a combination of 1. Fearful. 2. Suspicious. 3. Angry. 4. Defensive and especially 5. Confused. They’re also tired of being ridiculed and marginalized.

This is why healthcare providers at all levels need to balance speaking with listening. Here are 5 approaches that can be hallmarks of a new policy focused on building trust.

5 tactics for overcoming vaccine hesitancy

1. Listen to the concerns.

A study focused on motivating new moms to vaccinate children identified that an empathy-based approach can work to shift the intent to vaccinate. It involves open-ended questions and lots of listening. Consider a temporary hotline or chat function that’s dedicated to addressing concerns.

2. Challenge bad logic with information.

Be ready to provide explanation on topics such as these: 1. How the immune system works. 2. Vaccine security and safety measures. 3. How herd immunity works. 4. How vaccines for rabies, smallpox, polio, hepatitis B and A, and MMR have transformed the world. You can render this information in videos, link to the right web pages, post downloadable brochures, and leave fact sheets in the waiting room.

3. Offer a 1-0n-1 Telehealth conversation

Leverage the privacy and intimacy of a telehealth session to speak to vaccine-resistant people. Sometimes they just need to be persuaded by a provider.

4. Educate people about consequences.

Demonstrate the cost of non-vaccination. For example, as many as 6.0 million deaths are prevented globally each year by vaccinations. Remind patients that viruses hide inside human cells, contain genetic instructions, are known to mutate, do not respond to antibiotics, and that vaccines are proven to work.

5. Organize content by audience

For example, see how Boost Oregon handles vaccine-related content by audience. And the CDC is still a go-to for essential consumer-focused content.

Contact us when you’re ready for a conversation.