Despite a slow start to its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Canada’s immunization efforts are expected to ramp up this month, which is why some health experts are already planning to get ahead of yet another obstacle — that of vaccine hesitancy.
Provinces like British Columbia and Ontario have decided to prioritize vaccinations for specific groups based on factors such as age, neighbourhood, and race in an effort to ensure the most vulnerable populations are vaccinated first; but in order for that to work, the health community must first ensure that everyone is willing to get the shot.
While the World Health Organization (WHO) has considered vaccine hesitancy a major threat to global health since 2019, health experts have recently begun to worry about its impact on COVID-19 recovery efforts and the Global Goals at large.
In Canada, health care professionals are tackling the issue via a Zoom initiative that was launched by Tara Moriarty, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Toronto.
Moriarty began hosting a series of daily vaccine Q&A sessions in January 2020 with long-term care and retirement home residents and their family members.
The program has since expanded to the rest of the population with the help of 30 health care professionals, all dedicated to reaching anyone in Canada who’s reluctant about getting vaccinated.
Thanks to a jargon-free and conversational approach, experts are not only able to address fears about vaccines — but they can also gain a better understanding of the degree to which misinformation spreads among communities.
This aspect is crucial to scientists who might otherwise not be exposed to public perceptions of vaccines, according to Prital Patel, a health scientist at the University of Toronto.
“As scientists, we’re a bit oblivious to what people are hearing on the ground and the kinds of misinformation that’s leading them to perhaps become a bit hesitant,” Patel told the Canadian Press. “So we can actually really try and speak to the truth and the science behind everything in a way that’s understandable.”
But vaccine hesitancy cannot be addressed by simply fighting misinformation.
As Lisa Richardson, an internal medicine specialist and a strategic lead in Indigenous health at the University of Toronto, points out, other pervasive issues — such as negative experiences with the health care system, systemic racism, and discrimination — must also be addressed to rebuild trust across different groups.
“When I talk about vaccine hesitancy, I actually invert it, and I say, ‘Problems with the health care system that have led to vaccine hesitancy,’” she told CP. “So, when you start to explain that historical context, people can then situate the mistrust in that.”
Richardson, who will be engaging with 31 remote communities in Northern Ontario this week, added that Canada’s long history of discriminating against Indigenous people in the health care system must be taken into account when discussing vaccines.
Ultimately, her goal isn’t so much about convincing as it is about empowering marginalized groups to make autonomous, consensual, and informed health decisions, she said.