Here’s How We Can Rebuild Trust in Vaccines

When people ask Paul Offit, MD, what worries him the most about the COVID-19 pandemic, he names two concerns. “One is the lack of socialization and education that came from keeping kids out of school for so long,” Offit told Medscape Medical News in a recent interview. “And I think vaccines have suffered.”

Dr Paul Offit

Offit is director of the Vaccine Education Center and a professor of pediatrics at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He has watched with alarm as the American public appears to be losing faith in the lifesaving vaccines the public health community has worked hard to promote. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the proportion of kids entering kindergarten who have received state-required vaccines dipped to 94% in the 2020–2021 school year ― a full point less than the year before the pandemic ― then dropped by another percentage point, to 93%, the following year.

Although a couple of percentage points may sound trivial, were only 93% of kindergarteners to receive the vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), approximately 250,000 vulnerable 5-year-olds could spark the next big outbreak, such as the recent measles outbreaks in Ohio and Minnesota.

Offit is one of many public health officials and clinicians who are working to reverse the concerning trends in pediatric vaccinations. Their efforts combine conventional approaches, such as community outreach, with newer strategies, including using social media and even lending a sympathetic ear to parents voicing anti-science imaginings.

Dr Judith Shlay

“I just don’t want to see an outbreak of something that we could have avoided because we were not protected enough,” Judith Shlay, MD, associate director of the Public Health Institute at Denver Health, said.

Official Stumbles in Part to Blame

Disruptions in healthcare from the COVID-19 pandemic certainly played a role in the decline. Parents were afraid to expose their children to other sick kids, providers shifted to a telehealth model, and routine preventive care was difficult to access.

But Offit also blamed erosion of trust on mistakes made by government and public health institutions for the alarming trend. “I think that healthcare professionals have lost some level of trust in the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] and CDC.”

He cited as an example poor messaging during a large outbreak in Massachusetts in summer 2021, when CDC published a report that highlighted the high proportion of COVID-19 cases among vaccinated people. Health officials called those cases “breakthrough” infections, although most were mild or asymptomatic.

Offit said the CDC should have focused the message instead on the low rate (1%) of hospitalizations and the low number of deaths from the infections. Instead, they had to walk back their promise that vaccinated people didn’t need to wear masks. At other times, the Biden administration pressured public health officials by promising to make booster shots available to the American public when FDA and CDC felt they lacked evidence to recommend the injections.

Dr Rupali Limaye

Rupali Limaye, PhD, an associate professor of international health at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, studies vaccine behavior and decision-making. She would go a step further in characterizing the roots of worsening vaccine hesitancy.

“In the last 20 years, we’ve seen there’s less and less trust in healthcare providers in general,” Limaye said. “More people are turning to their social networks or social contacts for that kind of information.” In the maelstrom of the COVID-19 pandemic, digital social networks facilitated the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 faster than scientists could unravel the mysteries of the disease.

“There’s always been this underlying hesitancy for some people about vaccines,” Shlay said. But she has noticed more resistance to the COVID-19 vaccine from parents nervous about the new mRNA technology. “There was a lot of politicization of the vaccine, even though the mRNA vaccine technology has been around for a long time,” she said.

Multipronged Approaches

Shlay is committed to restoring childhood vaccination uptake to prepandemic levels now that clinics are open again. To do so, she is relying on a combination of quality improvement strategies and outreach to undervaccinated populations.

Denver Health, for instance, offers vaccinations at any inpatient or outpatient visit — not just well-child visits — with the help of alerts built into their electronic health records that notify clinicians if a patient is due for a vaccine.

COVID-19 revealed marked health inequities in underserved communities as Black, Hispanic, and people from other minority communities experienced higher rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths compared to White people. The Public Health Institute, which is part of Denver Health, has responded with vaccine outreach teams that go to schools, shelters, churches, and community-based organizations to vaccinate children. They focus their efforts on areas where immunization rates are low. Health centers in schools throughout Colorado vaccinate students, and the Public Health Institute partners with Denver-area public schools to provide vaccines to students in schools that don’t have such centers. (They also provide dental care and behavioral health services.)

But it is unlikely that restoring clinic operations and making vaccines more accessible will fill the gap. After 3 years of fear and mistrust, parents are still nervous about routine shots. To help clinicians facilitate conversations about vaccination, Denver Health trains providers in communication techniques using motivational interviewing (MI), a collaborative goal-oriented approach that encourages changes in health behaviors.

Shlay, who stressed the value of persistence, advised, “Through motivational interviewing, discussing things, talking about it, you can actually address most of the concerns.”

Giving Parents a Boost in the Right Direction

That spirit drives the work of Boost Oregon, a parent-led nonprofit organization founded in 2015 that helps parents make science-based decisions for themselves and their families. Even before the pandemic, primary care providers needed better strategies for addressing parents who had concerns about vaccines — and found themselves failing in the effort while trying to see 20 patients a day.

For families that have questions about vaccines, Boost Oregon holds community meetings in which parents meet with clinicians, share their concerns with other parents, and get answers to their questions in a nonjudgmental way. The 1- to 2-hour sessions enable deeper discussions of the issues than many clinicians can manage in a 20-minute patient visit.

Dr Ryan Hassan

Boost Oregon also trains providers in communication techniques using MI. Ryan Hassan, MD, a pediatrician in private practice who serves as the medical director for the organization, has made the approach an integral part of his day. A key realization for him about the use of MI is that if providers want to build trust with parents, they need to accept that their role is not simply to educate but also to listen.

“Even if it’s the wildest conspiracy theory I’ve ever heard, that is my opportunity to show them that I’m listening and to empathize,” Hassan told Medscape.

His next step, a central tenet of MI, is to make reflective statements that summarize the parent’s concerns, demonstrate empathy, amd help him get to the heart of their concerns. He then tailors his message to their issues.

Hassan tells people who are learning the technique to acknowledge that patients have the autonomy to make their own decisions. Coercing them into a decision is unhelpful and potentially counterproductive. “You can’t change anyone else’s mind,” he said. “You have to help them change their own mind.”

Limaye reinforced that message. Overwhelmed by conflicting messages on the internet, people are just trying to find answers. She trains providers not to dismiss patients’ concerns, because dismissal erodes trust.

“When you’re dealing with misinformation and conspiracy, to me, one thing to keep in mind is that it’s the long game,” Limaye said, “You’re not going to be able to sway them in one conversation.”

Can the powers of social media be harnessed for pro-vaccine messaging? Limaye has studied social media strategies to promote vaccine acceptance and has identified several elements that can be useful for swaying opinions about vaccine.

One is the messenger — as people trust their physicians less, “it’s important to find influencers that people might trust to actually spread a message,” she said. Another factor is that as society has become more polarized, interaction with the leadership of groups that hold influence has become key. To promote vaccine acceptance, for example, leaders of moms’ groups on Facebook could be equipped with evidence-based information.

“It’s important for us to reach out and engage with those that are leaders in those groups, because they kind of hold the power,” Limaye said.

Framing the message is critical. Limaye has found that personal narratives can be persuasive and that to influence vaccine behavior, it is necessary to tailor the approach to the specific audience. Danish researchers, for example, in 2017 launched a campaign to increase uptake of HPV vaccinations among teenagers. The researchers provided facts about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine, cited posts by clinicians about the importance of immunization against the virus, and relayed personal stories, such as one about a father who chose to vaccinate his daughter and another about a blogger’s encounter with a woman with cervical cancer. The researchers found that the highest engagement rates were achieved through personal content and that such content generated the highest proportion of positive comments.

According to Limaye, to change behavior, social media messaging must address the issues of risk perception and self-efficacy. For risk perception regarding vaccines, a successful message needs to address the parents’ questions about whether their child is at risk for catching a disease, such as measles or pertussis, and if they are, whether the child will they wind up in the hospital.

Self-efficacy is the belief that one can accomplish a task. An effective message would provide information on where to find free or low-cost vaccines and would identify locations that are easy to reach and that have expanded hours for working parents, Limaye said.

What’s the best approach for boosting vaccination rates in the post-pandemic era? In the 1850s, Massachusetts enacted the first vaccine mandate in the United States to prevent smallpox, and by the 1900s, similar laws had been passed in almost half of states. But recent polls suggest that support for vaccine mandates is dwindling. In a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation last fall, 71% of adults said that healthy children should be required to be vaccinated against measles before entering school, which was down from 82% in a similar poll in 2019.

So perhaps a better approach for promoting vaccine confidence in the 21st century would involve wider use of MI by clinicians and more focus by public health agencies taking advantage of the potential power of social media. As Offit put it, “I think trust is the key thing.”

Offit, Limaye, Shlay, and Hassan report no relevant financial relationships.

Ann Thomas is a pediatrician and epidemiologist living in Portland, Oregon.

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