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Effects of vaccine hesitancy

Bradley Warady, MD, pediatric nephrologist and researcher at Children’s Mercy Kansas City, discusses the causes of vaccine hesitancy and the effects of vaccine hesitancy on public health.

In a Q&A, Bradley Warady, MD, pediatric nephrologist and researcher at Children’s Mercy Kansas City, discussed the rise in parental hesitancy toward vaccines, along with the effects this will have on public health.

Q: How has vaccine hesitancy affected vaccination rates in the past 2 years? What health outcomes will this lead to?

A: In 2019, the World Health Organization listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health. Vaccine hesitancy has always been a concern, but it has become increasingly prevalent and has continued to rise across the United States, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemicsparked conversation about vaccine hesitancy in general, and the low vaccination rates across the country reflect a highly visible increase in vaccine hesitancy. 

Research has shown that parents who reported hesitancy to other general childhood vaccines or influenza vaccines were also less likely to vaccinate their child against COVID-19. Information from a phone survey conducted in May 2022 showed that 33% of parents reported that they would not give their child the COVID-19 vaccine.

Vaccine hesitancy as it relates to childhood vaccines has been linked to significant outbreaks, so it is a public health priority to increase trust in vaccines. Failure to vaccinate places children at risk for otherwise preventable infections, and a variety of associated complications. Vaccine hesitancy and refusal is of particular concern for immunocompromised children, such as transplant recipients or those with cancer, who are at an increased risk for serious infection because of the medications they must receive. 

Q: How has social media contributed to the increase in vaccine hesitancy?

A: Social media facilitates the rapid spread of information. While it allows for the dissemination of useful and accurate information, it also allows for widespread misinformation regarding vaccine efficacy and safety, which has likely contributed to growing vaccine hesitancy and opposition. Thus, while there is overwhelming evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and effective, vaccine hesitancy persists.

Q: How has parents’ hesitance toward the COVID-19 vaccine affected their willingness to have their children vaccinated against other diseases, such as influenza?

A: There is strong evidence that COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy has affected parents’ decisions about other childhood vaccines. For example, data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that between 2020 and 2021, there was a decrease in influenza vaccine rates for children. This is particularly relevant today with the exceptionally high numbers of children that are currently being seen with influenza.

Q: How can healthcare providers help reduce parents’ vaccine hesitancy?

A: The main reasons behind parents’ vaccine hesitancy are concerns about vaccine safety, variation in recommendations provided by healthcare professionals, and the need for more information. In turn, health care providers should make every effort to share consistent, clear, and pertinent information about the COVID-19 vaccine with their patients and parents. Health care providers should also use all medical encounters as an opportunity to provide vaccine-related education and answer vaccine related questions. At the same time, the medical community can work together to further explore and identify barriers to vaccination so that those barrierscan be addressed in a thoughtful and effective manner.