How communication will be key to ensuring COVID-19 vaccine uptake

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On 2nd December, the UK became the first country in the world to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, following review by the MHRA.

This announcement comes a ground-breaking seven months after the start of clinical trials and marks a major breakthrough, but it’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. Recent criticism that the approval was “hasty” and the spread of misinformation about vaccines on social media has already resulted in vaccination hesitancy.

Providing regular, clear and transparent communications about the new vaccine will be critical to increase public confidence and encourage vaccination uptake.

Globally vaccine mistrust is growing

Vaccination is the most effective public health intervention available, ranking second only to clean water for disease prevention. Yet in 2019, the World Health Organization listed vaccination hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health; at the time they couldn’t have imagined how soon the potential impact of that threat would be realized.

A recent study from UCL found that a fifth of people in the UK said they would be unlikely to get a vaccine for COVID-19. Worryingly, vaccination hesitancy appeared to be higher for the COVID-19 vaccine than the flu vaccine, particularly in older adults (we also cover the importance and complexity of ensuring flu vaccines at this time in: Taking steps to ensure flu vaccinations are a priority in a pandemic). These findings clearly highlight the effect of the ongoing spread of misinformation around COVID-19 and the vaccines. They further illustrate the importance of understanding people’s beliefs that may inform their decisions (for more on this topic, please see: Understanding people’s fears and concerns relating to COVID-19 vaccines).

This growing infodemic, a term used to describe the flood of information on the COVID-19 pandemic, has made it difficult for people to make informed decisions about their health. It’s therefore crucial that communications around COVID-19 vaccines be clear, honest and openly address the public’s concerns (for additional information on this topic, please see: What can we learn about effective healthcare comms from the current vaccine media frenzy?).

Compassion and clear communication will be key to increasing public confidence

The unprecedented speed of the development of COVID-19 vaccines has led many to, perhaps fairly, question whether they have been rushed. These are legitimate concerns and they need to be treated with respect and compassion to avoid alienating a large group of people and risk them turning to non-trustworthy sources of information.

Professor Heidi Larson, Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, has emphasized the importance of trying to understand these concerns, and encourages open and balanced dialogue about both risks and benefits.

Not only are the types of messages important, but the way they are communicated to the public must be considered. The public will inevitably be exposed to rumors and false information, and this must be countered by developing trusted spaces, via social and mainstream media, to share accurate information in an accessible way for the public. Furthermore, the situation provides an opportunity to discuss and educate the public about how scientific understanding can—and often does—evolve. (For more on this topic, please see: A case for communicating uncertainty.)

It is exciting to see that healthcare professionals are already starting to adapt, with live Q&As on social media becoming increasingly popular. Doctors are even starting to use TikTok to bust myths about vaccines.

These strategies, along with other innovative methods to share transparent and compassionate messages, will play a critical role in countering the spread of vaccine hesitancy and ultimately ensuring we return to something close to normality in the future. (For more on this topic, please see: We finally have a vaccine, but will this bring about a return to normality?)

Are you interested in exploring innovative methods for sharing your messages (regardless of your health topic)? Please contact us to explore how we can help.

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