Global taskforce set to demystify and overcome vaccine hesitancy amid COVID-19 pandemic

International experts are joining forces to combat vaccine hesitancy by tackling its root cause - misinformation - and arming key influencers with the facts.

The pioneering project, led by the University of Bristol and involving teams in Canada, Germany, Finland, France, and Portugal, will harness the potential of health care professionals to challenge misconceptions about vaccination, reinforce confidence in vaccines, and encourage uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine, including being immunised themselves.

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, Chair in Cognitive Science at the University of Bristol, who is heading the taskforce, said: “This is vital work, which will play a key role in fighting the deadly virus and other infectious diseases. Vaccine hesitancy is a significant issue across the world, including in the UK, and concerted efforts are needed to understand more about its origins and find effective ways to reduce fear and uncertainty, and build confidence in vaccines which are our best shot out of the pandemic.’

Vaccine hesitancy, defined as the delay or refusal of vaccination without medical guidance, has been recognised as a serious threat by the World Health Organization (WHO). Misinformation on the internet is a commonly cited cause and health care workers have been identified as trusted influencers, who can help sway vaccine decisions.

However, some evidence also indicates that not all health care workers are fully inclined to be vaccinated. For instance, latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the UK show although only 1 per cent of those offered vaccination against COVID-19 have turned it down, there is significant variation by age. Some 5 per cent refused in the 30 to 49-year-olds age group, 2 per cent among 50 to 69-year-olds and less than 1 per cent in those aged 70 or above. It is possible many of the 30 to 49-year-olds are health and social care workers, since they are among the limited other groups already eligible to receive the vaccine, besides people aged 65 and above, due to being at greater risk. The percentage of refusals among health care workers are even higher in some of the other participating countries.

Professor Lewandowsky said: “It is important that health care workers are vaccinated and communicate the benefits of vaccinations, especially given their close contact with vulnerable patients and how their attitudes and actions may be followed by others. Ultimately we need them fully on board with the vaccination program to keep themselves and the wider community safe and protected.’

The 2.7 million research, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme , will systematically investigate attitudes towards vaccinations among health care workers in the participating countries. Arguments made by anti-vaccination activists will be analysed and used to develop tools and techniques to challenge and refute such claims via health care workers. The project thus seeks to turn toxic misinformation into a potential asset based on the premise that the best way to acquire knowledge and to combat misperceptions is by employing misinformation itself, either in weakened doses as a cognitive “vaccine’, or through thorough analysis of misinformation during what is called “refutational learning’. Learning to refute misinformation can be the best way to acquire valid scientific knowledge.

The guidance will be deployed by the WHO and the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICIF) for worldwide benefit.

Professor Adam Finn, Professor of Paediatrics at the University of Bristol and Chair of the World Health Organization European Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, said: “Although great strides are being made with COVID-19 vaccination programs across the world, the spread of misinformation poses a significant threat to this progress. That’s why this is such an important research project, which could hold the key to improving vaccine uptake and reducing health inequalities. There is evidence to indicate greater vaccine hesitancy within BAME communities, which is particularly concerning since people from ethnic minorities have been shown to be at significantly greater risk of dying from COVID-19. Encouraging and reassuring health and social care workers to be vaccinated, and in turn enlisting their support to act as advocates to urge others, including patients, to follow will play a crucial part in reducing infection rates and saving lives.’

The research project will bolster other high-profile efforts to boost vaccine uptake, especially among target groups. Last night a celebrity-filled video urging people from ethnic minority communities to get the COVID-19 vaccine, which has also been shared online, was shown across the UK’s main commercial TV channels.

Professor Sander van der Linder, from the University of Cambridge, which is part of the taskforce, said: “The spread of misinformation about vaccination is one of the top global health threats. Our Social Decision-Making Lab is delighted to be part of this crucial and cutting-edge project to help develop a ‘psychological vaccine’ to inoculate health workers against influential misinformation.’


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