Why some people are reluctant to get vaccine

A specialist in vaccination policy, Dr Katie Attwell is a senior lecturer and academic researcher at the UWA School of Social Sciences. Dr Attwell also leads the interdisciplinary Coronavax project to engage in community and government research into readiness for the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Her research has focused on how governments motivate people to vaccinate, how vaccination policies make it to the agenda, how they are designed, how they differ and how they work.

Which groups in the community are most likely to be hesitant about COVID-19 vaccine safety? Why is it important to hear their voices and how do we do this?

Some Australian studies have indicated that younger women of childbearing age are more hesitant about accepting COVID-19 vaccines than other groups. We are also seeing women more generally being a little more hesitant than men. We are also hearing there are some concerns circulating in Aboriginal and culturally and linguistically diverse communities. The last two make sense because our peers and people who share our identity and values are trusted sources of information.

“If people take their cues from their peers then governments and other institutions will need to work harder to reach all groups of people with messaging in ways that are meaningful and make sense to them.”

Dr Katie Attwell

If people take their cues from their peers then governments and other institutions will need to work harder to reach all groups of people with messaging in ways that are meaningful and make sense to them. We need to hear people’s views and experiences so we can reach them with appropriate communications and services. Our “Coronavax” team is using social media studies and in-depth interviews to understand community sentiment.

How many Australians are estimated to be COVID-19 vaccine “fence-sitters” and how do we provide them with the confidence and motivation to vaccinate?

Studies conducted over the past year indicate that between 10 and 30 per cent of people are fence-sitters. The reasons they are on the fence need deeper explanation, and my team is currently finding some of these answers. In terms of confidence, we know that it’s important to talk about how the vaccines being rolled out have been stringently tested, just like other vaccines. It’s also worth emphasising that when people talk about not wanting to be the first, Australia is quite late in rolling out its program.

These vaccines have been administered to large numbers of people overseas already, and that’s not including the thousands who participated in the clinical trials. In terms of motivation, people will have different drivers. We can share how ours connect to our values and beliefs. For example, I really want to protect my parents and in-laws. I’m also hanging out to see my family in England – most of whom have already been vaccinated.

Is it important to show empathy towards “fence-sitters” and ensure they are not branded “anti-vaxxers”? How do we do this?

It’s factually inaccurate to suggest that people who are hesitant about COVID-19 vaccines are anti-vaxxers. Australia has a very high uptake of childhood vaccines and almost all Australians are positively disposed to vaccination. Some people are worried about this vaccine, or would rather accept it a bit later, and we need to support them.

An early finding from our Coronavax study is that many Australians feel negatively about anti-vaxxers, and the people feeling negative include those who are hesitant about the COVID-19 vaccines. So they are very clearly distinguishing themselves from those who are spreading fear and misinformation. In general, we know that vaccine-hesitant people often want to vaccinate, and often do vaccinate. Right now we don’t need to rush them. We can be kind, curious and empathic, and lead by example. When vaccination is a social norm, it is easier for people to feel reassured.

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