What should I say to someone who is hesitant about the potential COVID-19 vaccine?
A safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, while no silver bullet, is likely to help bring the coronavirus pandemic under control.
For many of us, a vaccine can’t come soon enough.
But while the vast majority of us support immunisation, research suggests some people are feeling hesitant about the prospect of getting a coronavirus jab.
A recent poll of 2,000 Australian parents found that almost a quarter were unsure or unwilling to get a potential COVID-19 vaccine.
Similar research conducted in April found that hesitancy among the general public was hovering at about 14 per cent — almost 5 per cent people said they would not get a vaccine, 9 per cent were ‘indifferent’.
This is a little higher than what we normally see with childhood immunisation — it’s estimated that only 3.3 per cent of Australian parents refuse vaccines.
While it can be tempting to reflexively dismiss or minimise people’s concerns about vaccination, lecturing friends and family or labelling them as “anti-vaxxers” is often counterproductive.
So how can you approach a conversation with someone who is feeling unsure?
Try not to jump to conclusions
Discussions about vaccination can be highly emotive, partly because it’s an issue that affects all of us. The success of a vaccine, after all, depends on widespread uptake.
While it’s normal to feel frustrated or upset when you think someone has been misinformed, it’s important not to make assumptions about their beliefs, says Katie Attwell, a senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Western Australia.
“We’re seeing hesitancy around this particular vaccine and that’s understandable because we’re operating in an extremely unprecedented and frightening scenario of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr Attwell said.
Just because someone has questions or expresses concern about a vaccine doesn’t necessarily mean they are an “anti-vaxxer” or science denier.
The accelerated timeline of COVID-19 vaccines — and the intense media interest that surrounds them — means that people are more likely to have questions, says Jessica Kaufman, a public health researcher at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.
“All of this is way more in the public eye than we would ever be aware of in a normal vaccine development process,” Dr Kaufman said.
Assess whether it’s worth engaging
Many people will feel uncertain about getting vaccinated until they know more about a particular vaccine’s safety and effectiveness, says Julie Leask, an expert in vaccine hesitancy at the University of Sydney.
“Once that is known, people will start to form more reliable intentions,” Professor Leask said.
It’s also worth assessing how open-minded someone is to considering other viewpoints.
If a person’s beliefs about vaccination are deeply held or they are unwilling to listen to others, there probably isn’t much to be gained by engaging with them on the subject.
“Some people will always be against vaccinating,” Professor Leask said.
“Choose your battles.”
It’s better to focus your energy on conversations with people who might be unsure about a COVID-19 vaccine, have unanswered questions, or don’t feel strongly either way.
Acknowledge people’s concerns
It’s important to establish some rapport and show empathy.
When it comes to health misinformation, affirming the positive value of scepticism, or acknowledging the challenges of finding accurate information can be a potential entry point for a conversation.
Instead of launching into an explanation about the proven safety of vaccines, start by trying to understand and acknowledge their concerns, says Dr Attwell.
“In the first instance, we should be listening to people,” she said.
It’s important people feel respected and that their concerns are being heard. That means avoiding judgemental or patronising language, says Dr Kaufman.
“It doesn’t help to shut them down, to tell them they’re being ridiculous, or they just have to suck it up for the greater good,” she said.
“That messaging is never helpful.”
Professor Leask adds that trying to lecture people or argue against their every point is counter-productive.
“We can all too easily get bogged down in fact-for-fact debates about safety and the vaccines, and forget what we are trying to prevent here.”
With that being said, one of the most common misconceptions about COVID-19 vaccines is that the speed at which they are being developed means their safety is being compromised.
This concern is unfounded and relatively easy to address.
“In the case of the COVID-19 vaccines, the speed comes from the fact that some of the processes are happening in parallel rather than sequentially,” Professor Leask said.
Rather than the science being sped up, the administrative and funding processes have been fast-tracked. Scientists also had a head-start thanks to previous research and technological advances.
It might help to explain this to someone feeling worried about the rigour of the testing process. But Professor Leask says you shouldn’t go overboard advocating or making assurances about vaccines that are still being tested.
“When we promote a possible COVID-19 vaccine, we need to avoid overconfidence until we learn more from the vaccine trials.”
Act as a role-model
For those of us who intend to get vaccinated if a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine is found, it can be helpful to share with our loved ones why, says Dr Attwell.
“There is research showing that we listen to our peers, to people that we like and trust,” she said.
“It doesn’t have to be: ‘I’m getting it and you’re an idiot if you’re still not sure.’
“It should be: ‘I appreciate that you’re feeling uncertain and I understand you’re feeling that way. This is my perspective, and why I’m looking forward to getting the vaccine.'”
It’s also important to remember in these conversations that you don’t need to have all the answers, says Dr Kaufman.
She suggests encouraging others to get their news from trusted sources, and sharing evidence-based tools and resources.
You can find information about vaccine safety through the World Health Organisation, the Department of Health, or the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance.