Somewhere along the way, a perfect storm of misinformation, social media, peer pressure and a huge dose of fear came together to create a situation where getting the vaccine is now seen by some as a politicised action, rather than just… getting a vaccine. We talked to Dr Nikki Turner, a GP and the Director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre, about the common fears people have about the vaccine and why listening, not lecturing, is the best way to help ease people’s concerns.
If you are someone who happily rolled up their sleeves to get the Pfizer shot, it might seem inexplicable to you that your friend or loved one isn’t immediately willing to do the same. But people bring their own experiences and their own levels of trust – or, lack thereof, to this decision.
“We’ve all got barriers when it comes to receiving medical things and there are a whole lot of different reasons – and some of them are just social and environmental,” Dr Turner says. “You can’t get a booking, it’s difficult to get there; a lot of people have a needle phobia and they don’t want to admit it, so there’s that fear of the needle and the fear of the unknown. A lot of it is completely understandable – and then it’s about how their environment enables them to get vaccinated or not.”
If people have had bad experiences with health professionals in the past, or someone they know had a reaction to the vaccine, that’s also likely to colour their own view when it comes to deciding to get the vaccine. “It’s an amplification of factors, it’s not just a single issue for people,” Dr Turner says.
“The problem is when you go on social media or you have fears, you will always find some individual to back up that fear. You’ll hear from ‘Dr X says this’ but science is not about an individual doctor’s opinion, it’s about an accumulation of knowledge. When the World Health Organisation comes out with something, it’s built upon a body of knowledge that comes up with the best assessment of the day. It’s not about an individual scientist’s opinion.”
“The problem is when you go on social media or you have fears, you will always find some individual to back up that fear.”
But, of course, parts of the media and parts of social media are fuelled by individual opinion, rather than collective knowledge, because that’s what gets more traction.
“Social media has created a loud voice out of a few,” says Dr Turner. “We know from the research that a few people are incredibly active on social media and they get magnification, so a small number of people create a very loud voice. It’s very unbalanced. And many of those people are either disgruntled with something from the past, or, to be quite frank, some of them are making money out of it.” She cites past examples in the States with vocal critics of the MMR vaccine, who made false claims that it leads to autism. “They can make money out of litigation and scaring people.”
But it is important to remember, Dr Turner says, that even though the anti-science movement is a loud one, it’s made up of a very small number of the overall population. “We’ve always had a small percentage – somewhere around a couple of percent – who just don’t believe in the scientific approach in general, so they’re not going to support vaccines and that’s their choice. For the remaining people, it’s about really allowing them to talk and then drilling down to what are their specific concerns and where did they originate from, and for many of them, they’ve just come from bad experiences or poor communication experiences in the past.”
“Some people have heard some stuff that makes them feel anxious and that’s okay, we all get that. People should be allowed to feel anxious about getting a vaccination; it’s just having a safe environment to express it.”
If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a loud and opinionated rant from someone, you’ll know that it’s not an effective form of persuasion. The point is: you cannot lecture or shame someone into changing their mind. “That doesn’t work and nor should it work,” says Dr Turner “Some people have heard some stuff that makes them feel anxious and that’s okay, we all get that. People should be allowed to feel anxious about getting a vaccination; it’s just having a safe environment to express it.”
“I think that if you’re not confident about vaccinations in general, it’s a good idea to talk to your general practitioner or your practice nurse or you can ring Helpline and say, ‘I’ve got some concerns.’ Then you can really nail down your concerns. Because we can say, overall the science is looking great and this is really going to help our community, but within that, it’s okay to have concerns. It’s about helping people work out their specific concerns that others can then help address.”
“There are still some unknowns – and that’s okay,” Dr Turner says. “We’re learning all the time and we’re getting more science knowledge as we go along. But a key point is that we’re all learning together and let’s try and support each other through our fears, because fears are fine. If we can help each other through them, it’s really useful for us as a community, rather than just beating people up if they don’t agree with us.”