Two COVID-19 vaccines are moving toward an emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, and both have been found to be more than 94 percent effective. Yet despite progress on the vaccine front, misinformation continues to spread, fueling doubts among skeptics who may decide not to take the vaccine at all.
Heidi Larson, the director of the Vaccine Confidence Project and author of the book “Stuck: How Vaccine Rumors Start and Why They Don't Go Away,” has seen this before. As an anthropologist who has spent years traveling the globe studying vaccine misinformation, she says "any news about vaccines always raises questions."
"One of the things I've learned is [to] never assume what's in the minds of people and the reasons that people question or refuse vaccines," Larson said in an interview with NPR's All Things Considered on Wednesday.
There are any number of factors that feed into distrust around vaccines, says Larson. For example, fear that freedom of choice is being restricted.
"That's something that has resurged in a big way in the context of COVID," she said. Wanting choice is "understandable," she said, but it sits on the line "between individual rights and public health rights."
Some people might believe a vaccine is "not natural," while others fear the "newness."
"For something new and unfamiliar, particularly in this hyper uncertain environment where every day you wake up and you're not sure what the guidance is going to be, that creates anxiety," she said.
Larson spoke with All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly about what's driving this anxiety, why the speed of the development process for a COVID-19 vaccine should not be taken to mean its unsafe and how she counsels talking to someone who is hesitant about vaccination.
On the message she wants people to hear about the safety of a COVID-19 vaccine
I think the message I'd like them to hear is the shortness of the vaccine development process, it's not the safety that has been compromised or shortened. There are many steps in the process of development, and in this case we had new funding mechanisms that made it possible to start quicker. We've shortened some of the administrative processes. We have new technologies, but the steps involving safety have not been shortened. They have not been compromised. And no vaccine will be delivered to the public before it really has enough confidence. And most importantly on the safety, no company wants a bad vaccine. No government wants a bad vaccine. No individual wants a bad vaccine. It's not in anyone's interest.
On how to have a conversation with someone who is hesitant about getting a COVID-19 vaccine
The most important thing is to hear them out, to listen. You may not agree with them, but I think that one of the reasons that I see that the anti- and questioning and skeptical voices have gotten louder is they feel like they've been shut down when they tried to express a concern or have their view. And it has kind of hardened the views because people feel cut out. And I think just listening and saying, "OK, I understand your side."
I always try to find some point where we can agree. Find some common ground. And there's usually something. It's very rare you don't find something you could talk about and start the conversation in a place you agree.
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