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Role of Research Societies in Addressing Vaccine Hesitancy

People across the globe are longing to put the COVID-19 pandemic behind them. While mask mandates and social distancing were implemented to contain the spread, experts believe vaccination is key to controlling and maybe even ending the pandemic. In early 2022, the director-general of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, stated that in addition to other measures, if 70% of the people in every country were vaccinated by mid-2022, it could end the emergency phase of the pandemic. One of the obstacles in realizing this goal by mid-2022 is the spread of misinformation and the subsequent vaccine hesitancy.

Despite the available evidence supporting the safety and efficacy of FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines, a certain level of vaccine hesitancy still exists. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that as of December 2021, almost 15% of adults over the age of 18 years in the United States remained unvaccinated against COVID-19. One of the main reasons for vaccine hesitancy, particularly in high-income countries, concerns the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, especially with regard to their fast-paced development. Combatting this hesitancy is made more challenging owing to COVID-19 misinformation, inconsistency in communication around COVID-19, and the complexity of scientific information. Research societies are in a unique position to tackle vaccine hesitancy, especially by employing the following strategies.

  1. Targeted approach: The reasons for vaccine hesitancy can differ across population groups, and an effective way to curb it would be to address each group’s concerns in a targeted manner. For instance, a society of gynecologists and obstetricians may find it helpful to survey the patient groups they serve to understand their concerns about COVID-19 vaccination, such as miscarriage and infertility risk. The results of the survey can be used to disseminate patient-focused information to members, delivered using formats such as virtual events or FAQs.
    1. Credible communication: In a survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, 42% of individuals who were unvaccinated against COVID-19 gave lack of trust as a reason for not getting the vaccine. Given the growing mistrust in science, especially in COVID-19 vaccines, it is essential to communicate credibly to persuade people. As suggested by the AMA, when addressing vaccine hesitancy, it would be helpful to acknowledge the audience’s concerns, be transparent about the information you provide, give specific answers to their questions, and try to demystify the science and process of vaccination.
    1. Making information more accessible: The importance of accessibility to reliable scientific information cannot be overstated. In an age where the spread of misinformation is rampant, research societies can use novel, digital formats of science communication that can help the general audience better interpret and understand complex research. Visual forms of science communication such as infographics are compelling in disseminating scientific information to a wider audience. For instance, the British Society for Immunology created an impressive collection of visual aids, including infographics and explainer videos, to educate the public on COVID-19 vaccines.
    1. Using social media: Social media is considered to be a major source of vaccine misinformation. Given the growing number of people who consume content via such channels, it may be an effective tool to share factual information in an effort to combat the surge of misinformation. Effectively using social media and visually appealing formats like infographics and videos can help research societies reach and educate a wider audience while considering the limited attention spans of social media users.
    1. Inclusive messaging: A recent study suggests that localizing vaccine-related information could effectively combat vaccine hesitancy among non-native English speakers. The British Islamic Medical Association has made resources regarding COVID-19 vaccination available in multiple languages along with information that may be more relevant to the Muslim community. Strategies like sharing vaccine-related information in multiple languages can have better reach and may help address vaccine hesitancy among minority populations.
    1. Mandating vaccination proof for in-person event attendance: Data suggests that people are increasingly becoming comfortable attending in-person events with COVID-19 protocols in place. A survey of meeting planners indicated that about 60% of the group leaned towards mandating proof of vaccination for such events. As research societies begin to conduct in-person events, vaccine mandates for attendees may serve as an incentive for attendees to get vaccinated.

Several societies have taken initiatives to encourage vaccination through various means. For instance, the American Society for Virology in collaboration with the American Society for Microbiology conducted COVID-19 vaccine education town halls. Several Canadian organizations, including the Canadian Association of Science Centers, support the #ScienceUpFirst campaign to stop the spread of misinformation. The American Hospital Association created extensive resources, including webinars, to address vaccine concerns among target groups. COVID-19 vaccination is becoming the norm, and positive, clear, and transparent vaccination messaging from credible organizations can help in combating vaccine misinformation and the resulting hesitancy.

Marisha Rodrigues

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