Five ways public health professionals can help tackle vaccine hesitancy

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We live in an age when opponents of science seek to overthrow established medicine that conflicts with their beliefs. Bombing the American public with conspiracy theories about magnetic forces and microchips in vaccines, COVID-19 as a government-made means of control, and vaccine development as a simple money ploy, these people who doubt the science, exaggerate the potential harm, or appeal to individual freedoms to prove their point of view gets away in large part because we as public health officials let them do it.

Even though about 72% of the US population aged 12 and over has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and about 61% are fully vaccinated by August 25, we still have many Americans who are hesitant or resisting. to vaccination. A June poll by Gallup found that 14% to 26% of Americans aged 18 and older say they have not been and do not intend to get the vaccine.

As the back-to-school season began, we experienced an increase in rates of COVID-19 infection among children. Until there is an approved vaccine for young children, we will not put the pandemic behind us.

As a public health professional and academic leader at a research university, my greatest fear is the struggle we face to achieve vaccine resistance. Scientific Holocaust denial represents an anti-establishment movement organized to reject mainstream science and legitimize lies. Never before in modern history have we seen this degree of lack of confidence in our health facilities, of support for demagoguery or the discrediting of science based on evidence and obvious facts.

Take, for example, the latest threat to our well-being: the Delta variant of the coronavirus, officially known as B.1.617.2, first detected in India in February. Its global spread has made this variant the dominant source of new infections in the United States, with epidemics in the South, groundbreaking cases among fully vaccinated people, and hospitalizations, serious illnesses and even deaths among the unvaccinated. Indeed, the risk of future epidemics is more pronounced in parts of the country where vaccination rates are low, which is why we must actively fight against the refusal or misinformation of vaccines and their effectiveness.

How to respond effectively to scientific negationism? The scientific community has debated this question, struggling to decide whether to continue to fervently defend the field, better understand opposing views through an empathetic approach, or simply refuse to engage with those who encourage and spread. disinformation.

Here’s what we need to keep doing:

Generate evidence to fight disinformation. Clinical research is part of the scientific process, and within research is factual data. Public health professionals, researchers and scientists must continue to seek answers to the most pressing questions.

Develop effective communication strategies. We can respond to scientific denial and raise awareness of the scientific process, emphasizing that there are mechanisms to preserve scientific integrity – for example, requirements for large representative samples in clinical trials, rigorous evaluation and review hypotheses. It is essential that the public understand the impartial and rigorous process behind evidence-based science. Good science makes good vaccines.

Go ahead with the action. We continue to educate the public on the validity of vaccines and the benefits of a mass vaccination campaign, both for individuals and for society. We can overcome barriers to accessing vaccines with accurate information and a defined and accessible route to receive a vaccine.

Reach out to groups facing disparities. We can and must do more to address health disparities and equalize access to vaccines and advanced clinical treatments. For example, public health professionals can work within their communities to provide culturally appropriate material in different languages; deploy mobile vaccination units in neighborhoods with “pharmacy deserts”; and tap into networks of churches, schools and businesses to help disseminate factual information.

Understand that “unvaccinated” does not necessarily mean denial. Overall, the disparate and overwhelmed communities of color that are not vaccinated are not science deniers. Many of them are not vaccinated not because of resistance, but because structural barriers hinder access to public health information and resources.

Denial and rejection of the scientific method is an attack on the truth. Groups that perpetuate lies threaten our progress in achieving collective immunity and protecting the health of all Americans. Their efforts to confuse, distract, or garner support from vaccine opponents could have a direct impact on public health policies.

Much like the virus itself, denial of science is a threat to our collective well-being, both mental and bodily. As public health officials, we must stop the infiltration of disinformation into the minds and psyches of Americans, or we will continue to see unnecessary loss of life spanning generations.

Dr. Bernadette Boden-Albala, MPH, DrPH, is Director and Founding Dean of the future School of Population and Public Health at the University of California-Irvine, and Professor of Neurology at the UCI School of Medicine. She has been at the forefront of Orange County’s COVID-19 response and has worked with UNICEF and the United Nations World Food Program on Ebola and polio responses.


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