Authorities need to listen to people’s concerns about vaccines rather than imposing top down vaccination measures, an expert has said.
The announcement that Pfizer/BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine may be ready for distribution before the end of the year has raised the issue of misinformation being spread by anti-vaxxers.
But experts say not everyone who is reluctant to be vaccinated is a conspiracy theorist, with some people having genuine concerns about getting a jab.
Professor Melissa Leach, director of the Institute for Development Studies, said there is an overlap between anti-vaxxers and what is being called an “infodemic of misinformation”, and people’s everyday concerns.
She told the PA news agency: “I think often we assume that somehow you’ve got these anti-vaccination campaigners or these conspiracy theorists and they’re putting out misinformation and the public is kind of absorbing that as a sort of blank slate.”
Prof Leach said this was “wholly wrong”, adding: “I think publics are not ignorant, I think people have very genuine anxieties about vaccines of all kinds.”
She explained that people are always going to interpret what they are reading and seeing in light of their own experiences and existing anxiety.
Prof Leach said that in the past the biggest problem had been that authorities imposed vaccination as a kind of top down measure, without listening to people’s concerns, and that approach has backfired.
“And that’s when hesitancy turns into resistance, and into people saying ‘no’.
“You don’t get the chance to meet people where they are and address the concerns they might have through a dialogue that could help people feel confident.
“And that’s really what we need to do at this point, is build vaccine confidence,” Prof Leach told PA.
She said another key issue is trust in the authorities or scientists.
Prof Leach added: “What we’ve already seen is mistrust fuelled by the way the response has been handled in certain ways .
“So there’s a lot of public concern, I think, about the the lack of transparency in procuring private services and rolling out the test and trace system.
“And I think some of that could spill over into people’s people’s worries about the way vaccination gets rolled out.
The member of the World Health Organisation’s road-map social science expert group for Covid said there are also perceptions the Government has not always followed the science, and some officials have been seen to flout the rules.
She said: “None of that bodes terribly well for people just accepting now the sort of top down message about vaccination.
“People are going to ask questions, they’re gonna say ‘well, should I trust this?’.”
Prof Leach, who is also a member of the British Academy Covid-19 steering group, said the key to addressing the issue is community engagement and localisation.
She said sometimes there is “comfort in the known” and big vaccination campaigns involving the Army and max mass vaccination days may not be the answer.
“It’s very separate and different from the more routine localised health services that people very often do trust, and in the UK it would be their GPs and their practice nurses who are amongst the most trusted professionals,” Prof Leach said.
She said it was also really important for the Government to communicate uncertainties, and not assume the public is ignorant or stupid, or only wants clear messages.
However, Prof Leach said that outlawing the spread of misinformation is not necessarily the solution as it would cause the anti-vaxxers to “go underground”, and prevent rumours being addressed.
Heidi Larson, director of the vaccine confidence project, and professor of anthropology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said she thought the scientific community was not doing enough at explaining why the process of developing a Covid-19 vaccine had been so quick.
She said: “There’s new technologies, there were new funding mechanisms in place.
“The kinds of things being shortened are some of the administrative processes, but also the technologies are allowing it in a different way.”
A study led by Prof Larson suggests exposure to misinformation could see people making a U-turn on taking a Covid-19 vaccine.
She said that while tech companies were limited in what they could do to remove misinformation from the internet, the Government needs to make sure it is filing any gap with the correct information
Prof Larson said: “I think having proactive communication, dialogue, is going to be really crucial.”
She added: “We should talk about and address some of the questions about processes, on mechanisms, and how these vaccines work.
“I think it’s important to fill the space with what we do know, while we continue to add to that as we get more information.”