“I am not taking that”, my barber responded. It was January 2021 and Dominic who had been my go-to barber for a couple of months was giving me a haircut. As usual we talked about various topics and on this occasion our conversation turned to the COVID-19 vaccine. He had such strong opinions about the vaccine and expressed them so fiercely. He was so passionate about this that he had actually uttered an expletive which was very unusual for him. For these reasons, despite being a graduate student conducting research on vaccines and having more than a lay-man’s knowledge on the topic I felt paralyzed in that barber’s chair. I wasn’t sure where to start and how to unpack his feeling on vaccines. About a month later I would come across an article published in the New England journal of medicine entitled “Escaping catch-22 - overcoming COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy”. It was authored by Dr. Lisa Rosenbaum - a cardiologist who had a similar experience with her hairdresser in New York city. She expressed a view that I believe is quite profound and necessary in combating vaccine hesitancy - empathy and humility. She highlights the fact that vaccine hesitancy is complex and is often a conglomeration of diverse reasons and influences. For those who have doubts about vaccines when any effort by the scientific community to convince them, they often dig their heels. The reason for this lies in the mistrust of the “establishment” whether scientific, governmental or political. Dr. Rosenbaum cites a study in which researchers tried to increase MMR vaccination rates by showing parents graphic pictures of children affected with measles. This strategy failed as fears of the side-effects of the vaccine rose but vaccination rates did not.
Vaccine hesitancy is complicated and finding the right balance of empathy while sticking to the facts can be challenging. In addition, observers have noted that the evolving nature of science seen with new discoveries that sometimes refute what was previously accepted makes it difficult can be a point of contention for anti-vaxxers. The concerns of those are vaccine hesitant are not always irrational and should not be stigmatized. In fighting vaccine misinformation it is important that the messaging is not perceived as condensing because this has may failed attempts to limit misinformation.