What makes people change their stance completely on vaccination?
“I`m 45 years old and have just had my first vaccination ever! As in ever! I have had no other vaccination in my life, not as a child, as a teen nor as a so-called adult.Neither had my sons as babies or as children or as adults.” These are lines from the first paragraph of a 2021 stuff.co.nz article that described Bevan`s story of changing his vaccination stance. The first thing that came to mind for me, and probably most other people, when reading it was shock. He had actually survived this long without succumbing to infectious disease, and the many downstream complications linked with them. Over half the average lifespan. This was probably the aspect of the story that stuck in my mind the most. That long without a single vaccine. Not only them, but their children too.
This is far from the only case of someone who was vaccine hesitancy changing their stance. Later in the article, Tanya`s story is described. She states that "I had always been vaccine hesitant”. She says it isn't linked to conspiracy theorism in any way, but because “we had vaccinated our son and unfortunately he had some reactions to his vaccines. This is a very rare occurrence and not likely to happen to any other children we were to have.”
The next logical question, I think for most people, is, well, why? What would motivate someone to not vaccinate for this long? Further, what made them change? Let's break it down, and look at the first question initially
All of the above?
Maybe they had an experience with vaccine side effects, as was the case with Tanya
It would be easy to assume some or all of these things. Obviously I don`t know the people in the post. We can`t make assumptions about people we don`t know. So it's difficult to assume any of these things.
That said, there are some commonalities between those who ask questions about vaccines. Some have grown up and married people in natural living communities. Maybe they raised their children with certain values. They may have formed genuinely fulfilling personal and professional connections within these communities. It's difficult to turn back once you`ve established yourself within a group that much.
Some have had one or more bad experiences with healthcare providers. It's like any relationship; if one person feels repeatedly mistreated, mistrust will grow. So it's not surprising that some “anti vaxxers” used to be just patients whose concerns were ignored. This can especially be seen in minority groups such as ethnic minorities, disabled patients, those who speak different languages, and many more.
Sometimes it's simple complacency. In other words, some feel that it's “fine.” There is very much a narrative that “Nobody I know has ever contracted a vaccine-preventable disease, so I`ll be fine.”
In some cases, maybe…
In others, vaccine-preventable diseases can have disastrous consequences…..
An article published on Independent.ie described how Bridget Fox contracted bacterial meningitis in November of 2013. After two days of increasing pain, she was transported by ambulance to St. Vincent`s hospital. Here, she collapsed and, in her own words, “woke up in intensive care with drips in my arm and everything.” After being diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, she was put on a course of antibiotics, and can now no longer work as a healthcare assistant. Bridget feels that “ I lost myself as a person when I got the disease.” Her identity and quality of life were forever changed.
This can be the reality of contracting vaccine-preventable diseases, and Bridget`s story is far from the only example how. Discussions about vaccines can affect other aspects of life too.
A 2021 article published in The Jerusalem Post detailed how a couple were driven to the brink of divorce over conflict whether to vaccinate or not. It states that “The wife is the only one currently working, but she's not allowed to go to work until she vaccinates, which she refuses to do.” So vaccination doesn't just divide states. It doesn't just divide communities. It divides families.
Very often, it's a combination of two or more of these reasons. Further, we don't know what any given person`s reasons for questioning/delaying, or refusing vaccination are. We shouldn't jump to conclusions based on circumstances we know nothing about. Which is why it's beyond important to evaluate people individually, and not demonise them for their vaccination stance.
Regarding vaccinating, Bevan from earlier states that he “first and foremost did it for the people that surround me, people in my bubble, and also for the possibility of it preventing me from getting the unfortunate COVID 19 infection and causing an early departure from from this lovely earth of ours where I have beautiful sons and grandsons and a girlfriend that I definitely would not want to leave behind earlier than I may otherwise be blessed to have been here for.“
It`s a seriously difficult thing to do. Developing the capacity to look at and change your views is a real sign of being intellectually honest, and mature. That earns my respect any day of the week; and the respect of anyone worth the time of day.
Some people, unfortunately, have to learn the hard way. In her description of how she changed her stance, Tanya says that “this year saw me get sick with a cough that I couldn't shake. For six months I've coughed, had blue lips and shortness of breath. I`ve spent nights tossing and turning trying to breathe and have generally felt like I'm drowning or suffocating slowly”. The realisation slowly dawned on her, though, as she goes on to say that “I knew that if I was having such a hard time with a small virus that had turned nasty, then I was going to really suffer if I caught COVID-19”. So experience with infectious disease, either themselves or a close friend or family member can be a big reason, if not the biggest reason, why people change their stance on vaccination.
The first thing I would do is try to relate to them. Then you have a foundation of understanding on which to start a discussion.
The first step is to ask, how do you relate to them? I`ve seen vaccine hesitators and refusers being called everything from stupid to illiterate too much worse online. Although I am entirely in support of vaccination and all public health precautions, I don`t support this mockery or engage with it. It doesn't actually increase vaccination rates. Why? Answering this requires asking another question that brings in the element of relating to people.
Would you be open to information someone gave you if they called you illiterate, uneducated etc? Consider a time when/if someone has called you these or similar things. Were you interested in hearing their perspective? I don`t know you, but I can guess the answer was a HUGE no. Who wants to be seen in this way? I certainly wouldn't.. Why? Regardless of the issue, everyone likes to maintain a good image of themselves. Both in our own eyes, and in the eyes of others. It's good for self-esteem.
So. Bottom line: Relating your experiences to those of people you are trying to get through to works. You can communicate with them about why they changed their vaccination stance.
Although communication is crucial, there`s an important caveat to the issue.
It's about a willingness to communicate. On both sides. It's important to identify who is willing to communicate and who isn`t. Then, you can help those who are before they are recruited to more extremist groups. Doing this saves everyone involved a lot of time, effort, and energy. It's like any important issue. Not everyone is interested. Even if they are at one point, that can change.
So, keeping the lines of communication open requires an ongoing effort
On the part of everyone involved.
Also, it can be useful to actually talk to people about WHY they changed their stance. It tells you a lot about what motivates people, very commonly stories of experiences that either they or close family members or friends had with vaccines, or vaccine preventable disease. Which, in turn, tells you how to get through to them. Listening matters.
This is an interesting question, with the answer being that experiences are a huge reason why people change their vaccination stance. This also shows how the public conceptualise vaccines, and more broadly, public health. This is distinct from how health authorities frame vaccination (in terms of statistics etc) . This really gives a window into why there is a lack of willingness to communicate about vaccines, and therefore why some areas really lag in reaching high vaccination rates If we want to understand how to change the public's perception of vaccines, we need to think about how we can frame them in a way that resonates with everyone. That framing might just be empathy. Thanks for reading
Copyright @ Irish Medical Times 2023