Advice from UB experts
By Annette Pinder

UB professor and expert on vaccine history in the U.S., Dr. David Herzberg, recently noted that concerns and hesitancy about vaccines is not new. He also pointed out that while people have valid concerns about unequal or irrational vaccine distribution, or unequal exposure to COVID-19 risks and access to treatment, they have not made any legitimate arguments to support their fear of the vaccine. As a result, he urges people to make an appointment to get vaccinated. He also talks about the importance of improving COVID-19 vaccine messaging.

“The risks of COVID-19 greatly outweigh the risks of any of the approved vaccines, but widely publicized claims of dangers related to other vaccines such as MMR linger in popular culture, despite being universally debunked, says Hanna Grol-Prokopczyk, a UB associate professor and expert in medical sociology. She also acknowledges the history of mistrust of the medical establishment among minority populations due to a long history of trust-shattering racist medicine, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, that has continued in many forms through the 20th century and into the present. As a result, Grol-Prokopczyk recommends that trusted local figures join with medical authorities in spreading the message about the COVID-19 vaccine. She says, “Finding respected local community members and leaders ─ clergy, athletes or teachers, for example ─ who can encourage and model vaccination may be more effective than preaching about vaccine safety from on high.”

“Information accessibility is key, especially to marginalized populations,” says Helen Wang, a UB associate professor who specializes in health communication and promotion. Wang says, “We can reduce uncertainty and anxiety by consistently and effectively considering things like literacy level, word choice, and relatable images in order to provide accurate and detailed descriptions about vaccination sites, procedures, and possible side effects to help people be better prepared.”

And Yotam Ophir, an UB assistant professor whose research interests include misinformation in the areas of health, science and politics, discusses the importance of empathy. She says, “We’re a divided society. It’s becoming harder for us to communicate across disagreements, and people tend to shut down when we attack them for their beliefs and choices. When communicating with those who are hesitant or refuse vaccination, remember that respect will be key to a successful discussion.”

Empathy takes on even greater importance when communicating to an audience that has experienced trauma. Elizabeth Bowen, UB associate professor of social work says, “It’s important to keep in mind that a lot of people have valid reasons for not trusting authority figures. Public health providers need to listen to these individuals and communities. Don’t assume you already know the reasons why someone is hesitant to receive the vaccine. Listen and have a conversation around it.”