What causes vaccine hesitancy? What can public health organizations, governments, and communities do to try to deal with it? In the first episode of “In Conversation” series, Springer Nature Editor in Chief Sir Philip Campbell talks with Professor Heidi Larson about the roots of vaccine hesitancy, and the approaches that she and her group are taking to investigate new ways of addressing it. Professor Larson is co-founder of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Clinical Professor of Health Metrics Science at the University of Washington in Seattle, and author of the book, Stuck: How Vaccine Rumors Start and Why They Don’t Go Away, published in October, 2020.
Vaccine hesitancy, of course, didn’t start with COVID-19, and neither did Professor Larson’s research. She and her group had already been working on this question for more than 10 years by the time the pandemic broke out. She founded the Vaccine Confidence Project in 2010, based on her work with UNICEF, in the years prior to that.
The Vaccine Confidence Project takes a multidisciplinary view to studying vaccine hesitancy, and includes researchers from political science, psychology, computer science, anthropology, mathematical modeling, and more. The group studies how vaccine rumors start and what can be done about them. They found that public health agencies have tended to simply push out information, which works for people already open to getting vaccinated.
Recently the group has found that emotions are driving vaccine hesitancy. People who feel hopeful tend to be more open to new vaccines, whereas those driven more by negative emotions like fear, anger, or distrust are more likely to hesitate or reject taking the vaccines.
Following from that, government agencies like the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) have tended to use straightforward—but dry—messaging whereas those opposing vaccines have gone for emotional appeals, which has made it harder for the pro-vaccine message to get across. What they’re finding is that other communication channels and modes—for example, local community leaders, religious leaders, etc.—can work better than formal agency communications. One particular example: Professor Larson tells the story of Bangladeshi restaurant owners in East London getting vaccinated, taking selfies, and encouraging people in their community to get their shots.
The need for telling these stories motivated Professor Larson to publish in broad journals like Nature, and also to write her book Stuck in an accessible popular science format—so that these findings would reach beyond the academic communities , and resonate with a wider more general audience, increasing the real-world influence that they can have.
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