The World Forum - May 27th, 2024

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How to discuss the COVID-19 vaccine with those people who want to avoid getting it


“You go first.”

It’s a sentiment that’s been raised often on social media and in the comment section of media reports about the COVID-19 vaccine. The commenters express some hesitation about receiving their dose of a fast-tracked vaccination, which they argue has been approved too quickly, with future effects still unknown.

As the first doses of the vaccine are set to be administered in Toronto and Ottawa this week, difficult conversations might crop up among friends and family that are vaccine hesitant.

Unlike those who are “anti-vax” and vehemently oppose vaccination or laws that regulate vaccination, people who are vaccine hesitant may delay or refuse being vaccinated despite the existence of thorough scientific research into vaccinations.

Approaching conversations with vaccine hesitant family members should be done in a way that is patient and kind, said Maya Goldenberg, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph and author of the forthcoming book “Vaccine Hesitancy.”

Overloading with studies and facts can be harmful, Goldenberg explained. “It gets people defensive and gets their backs up. So the best thing to do is ask people what their hesitations are (and) to listen out for what they have to say,” she said.

Listening attentively to specific concerns and not being dismissive is key, Goldenberg said. “I think there’s a tendency to … become frustrated with people who don’t think the same way that you do. And when you do that, you shut down opportunities for communication.”

Some hesitancy may occur in marginalized or racialized communities due to historic and current injustices in the health-care system. This can be broader than just deciding whether to be vaccinated, Goldenberg said. “It might involve putting other things in place, like improving the broader health-care experience of racialized communities.”

With help from community leaders and local organizers, public health officials can reach out to communities and build trust, Goldenberg said.

Building up a rapport and showing kindness can bridge the gap and help people come to terms with being vaccinated, she said. “You might find resistant people becoming at least more open to talking and considering why, for example, this vaccine might present as an opportunity rather than a threat.”

Goldenberg warns that there is no guarantee that efforts to convince vaccine hesitant family members will work. In cases where people have become wrapped up in unfounded conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccines, she suggests not engaging in a discussion to try to prove them wrong.

“Conspiracy theories are sort of crafted in a way that you can’t just disprove them on a factual basis,” Goldenberg said. “If you weaken one point, there’s another that’s … going to come up. So I’d say just wait for them to come around.”

Omar Khan, an assistant professor at the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Toronto, said that while Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine has been approved for emergency use in Canada faster than is usual, the standards of approval have not changed.

Though adverse effects such as headaches, low-grade fevers and muscle aches are often expected to follow a vaccination, the effects observed with the COVID-19 vaccine don’t deviate from what is seen in older vaccines that have been in use for some time, Khan said.

While the mRNA technology used in the COVID-19 vaccines is new to consumers, “it’s been studied for years,” he said. “It’s in a variety of clinical trials and other forms. So it’s not like this is brand new.”

How you talk to a relative that is vaccine hesitant is going to vary depending on the person, Khan said. Like Goldenberg, he warned against becoming combative. “We never want it to be a combative argument or combative conversation, especially (with) someone that’s very entrenched in their opinion — we have to respect that.”

He suggested telling people who are opposed to receiving their shots that you intend to get one yourself to stay safe and do your part to stop the spread.

“Saying ‘it’s important for me, I have you in my life, and I have kids and other people … who would really benefit from me being protected,’” may go a long way in convincing loved ones to do the same.

“Sometimes it takes some people a while to get used to something new, and that can be scary,” Khan said.