By now Canadians should be seeing the annual promotions from public health officials for the flu vaccine. With winter on its way, various flu viruses will be making their way across our borders and into the respiratory tracts of millions. However, despite the advertisements, only about one-third of us will actually seek the shot.
The rate of vaccine acquisition has remained relatively stable over the years suggesting the majority of Canadians are not raising their sleeves. While there is little doubt the vaccine is an excellent means to prevent infection, this message appears to be diluted by a number of other factors. For those responsible for ensuring the safety of Canadians the low turnout requires a more in-depth analysis to find a solution.
Every year, an attempt is made to understand the reasons for avoiding the flu shot. Usually, however, the information is less than helpful. Most people tend to suggest the vaccine is unnecessary yet the reasons behind this assertion are not explored.
Some people say they forget yet the ubiquity of public advertising and messaging suggests this is not entirely truthful. Then there are those who refuse the vaccine because of safety concerns. These individuals tend to suggest the vaccine can do more harm than good.
While this information may be somewhat informative, determining ways to deal with the underlying issues can be akin to playing whack-a-mole. Although one issue may be targeted for awareness, others may creep in and dilute the message leading to no increases in vaccination rates. For public health officials, a more congruent message is needed although how to achieve this is still an enigma.
There may now be help on the way thanks to the work of an Alabama researcher by the name of Scott Field. Single-handedly, he may have discovered the real reason behind these unsucessful efforts. Unfortunately, his results also reveal a more complicated problem requiring a multi-faceted solution.
The approach Field used was quite simple. He examined 131 individuals from his pediatric medical practice. He gained consent to look at past medical records and also current state of health. He then grouped people into those with influenza, and those without.
Then came the critical phase of the experiment. He wanted to know why individuals missed the flu vaccine. Based on what was already known, some of the same arguments would be made by those infected while those without would have different reasons for missing out.
When the results came back, there were some differences between the infected and the healthy. Half of the infected individuals didn't think the shot was necessary whereas only a handful of healthy individuals felt the same way. In addition, the infected individuals were more likely to say they simply forgot or didn't get around to it.
But there was one place where no difference was found. It was the fear of side-effects. About one-third of both the infected and healthy individuals were concerned about the potential for vaccine harm. This at least was some positive news.
The most revealing information came from a question regarding an individual's perspective on the benefit of the flu vaccine based on prior illness. In those who were suffering from influenza, almost 90% said they had contracted the infection previously. Yet, the memory of the arduous encounter was not enough to convince them to seek out the vaccine.
This last result may reveal the true nature of vaccine hesitancy. Regardless of what people may claim, the underlying reason for avoidance may be a lack of trust in the vaccine mechanism. After all, if people don't believe a solution will do any good, they won't seek it out, even if the threat of illness is present. Unfortunately, the threat of the virus is the predominant message being conveyed. Yet, as this study reveals, the use of fear to coerce compliance doesn't really work.
For public health officials, this study should be sobering. The fearful messages used in today's advertising and marketing may be doing little to help. Based on this study, awareness of the mechanism of vaccination and the immunological benefit on the inside of the body may be all people want to hear.
Granted, this may mean more effort is needed to ensure the public is properly informed. But if you think about it, this approach makes perfect sense. If individuals understand exactly what a vaccine does at the molecular level, including the benefits associated with getting the shot, they may be more receptive to the process.
This in turn may help to gain that trust in some of those two-thirds who don't get vaccinated every year. If all goes well, they also may be inclined to raise their sleeves and help to reduce the burden of the virus' annual assault..
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