Overcoming Vaccine Hesitancy

Updated on January 19, 2022 (Originally posted on November 2, 2021) The Tablet

By Derek Desrosiers, BSc(Pharm), RPh

The fall flu season is the perfect time to address vaccine hesitancy with your patients, especially those who are unsure about getting any vaccine, be it flu, COVID-19 vaccine or some other vaccine. The real key to addressing vaccine hesitancy is to understand the reason for the hesitancy in the first place. That means that you must be a good listener. Not all vaccine hesitancy is rooted in an antivaxxer mentality. There are many reasons people are often leery about vaccines. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and the rapid development and deployment of COVID-19 vaccines has only heightened vaccine awareness overall, including hesitancy, for a variety of reasons. Let’s explore a few of the more common reasons for vaccine hesitancy and how you might address them with patients.

There are those patients who just generally feel they are healthy and active and believe they do not need a vaccine or won’t benefit from a vaccine. They usually have active lives and often cite being too busy as a reason for not getting a vaccine (especially flu and/or COVID-19). Often, appealing to their sense of family and community can sway them. When they realize that a vaccine not only protects them but their loved ones and others around them, they may come around. Of course, the convenience of being able to get the vaccine right away in the pharmacy will also be a big plus for these patients.

A difficult group of patients to convince are those who are anti-big pharma. They generally believe that big pharma companies are raking in billions of dollars of profit, and they aren’t about to contribute anymore to that by getting a vaccine. The one effective technique I have found to work with some of these patients is to point out that these companies invest profits into research and development (R&D). It can take up to a billion dollars to bring a new drug to market and there can be thousands of product failures along the way in the development or clinical trial stages. The argument becomes even more effective if the patient or a loved one is taking a chronic medication that may be life-altering or saving. Then you can leverage that information by pointing out that the drug may not even exist without the R&D investment of big pharma.

There exist a small cohort of patients who are just generally contrarians and live with the attitude that “I’m not going to have government or ‘the man’ tell me what to put in my body.” I have not had much success convincing this type of patient. They sometime respond better if you agree with them that it is their choice not to get vaccinated but point out that they are also putting their family and loved ones around them at risk. Sometimes they have never looked at it from that perspective.

The true anti-vaxxers are a difficult group. They believe in false information like “vaccines cause autism”. Their major source of information often seems to be Facebook and YouTube. I try to make the point that they should consider reading some appropriate scientific information from reputable researchers who publish their data and findings in peer-reviewed journals and not on Facebook.

Specifically, regarding COVID-19 vaccines, there are those patients who believe that the vaccines were developed too quickly and are “untested”.  These same patients are also often concerned about potential long-term adverse effects of the vaccine. It is often helpful to point out to these patients that mRNA vaccine technology has been in the works for years and it was not something just developed for the COVID-19 vaccine.

As of Oct. 7, 2021, 46.1% of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. About 6.41 billion doses have been administered globally, and 22.81 million are now administered each day. So yes, the vaccine has been “tested” in the real world. I also find it effective to point out that the rapid development of the COVID-19 vaccines came about because researchers around the world dropped everything they were working on to focus their attention on developing a COVID-19 vaccine and that they shared data and collaborated like never before. That is what led to the relatively rapid development and clinical trial testing of the COVID-19 vaccines we have approved today.

Overcoming vaccine hesitancy is difficult regardless of the argument the hesitancy is grounded in. However, it is always worth trying and changing even one mind is worth the effort. I believe that it is a most appropriate task for a pharmacist.

Derek Desrosiers, BSc(Pharm), RPEBC, RPh is President and Principal Consultant at Desson Consulting Ltd.

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