During the COVID-19 pandemic, adolescents and young adults (AYAs) fell behind on well-visits and immunizations, which remain below pre-pandemic levels. Now, it is important to bridge the gap between teens, parents, and health care providers (HCPs) to address vaccine hesitancy and encourage AYAs to make well-informed decisions when faced with the choice of whether to get vaccinated.
Unity® Consortium hosted a panel discussion during Adolescent Immunization Action Week 2023, an annual action-oriented movement taking place the first week of April. The panel included teen advocates for vaccination Arin Parsa and Lindsey Smith, featuring Dr. Paul Offit, and moderated by Dr. Chelsea Clinton to discuss the importance of involving teens in vaccine conversations, strategies to minimize vaccine hesitancy and how to combat vaccine misinformation.
Let’s take a deep dive into their conversation and explore some of the key insights that emerged as a part of this insightful and thought-provoking discussion.
Vaccine Hesitancy at a Glance
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, we began to see the impacts of vaccine hesitancy. This began in the early 80s with concerns about the whooping cough vaccine and has expanded in the minds of anti-vaxxers to include most vaccines. The result, however, has become a public health nightmare. Dr. Paul Offit told webinar viewers, “what scared me the most, was that one-third of parents now don’t think that vaccines should be mandated for schools.” A recent study reinforces this striking statistic, highlighting some of the frightening realities of vaccine hesitancy today.
Vaccine misinformation and disinformation, particularly online, are significant contributors to the rise in vaccine hesitancy over time. Parents’ skepticism about vaccines can contribute to their choice against vaccinating their families. While conversations regarding vaccination may be difficult, particularly with those of anti-vaccine sentiments, they are necessary to encourage and motivate action to protect our communities through immunization.
Having Conversations Surrounding Vaccination
The good news? Science supports the strength of pro-vaccine messaging. Vaccinations are safe and effective and are proven to work by decades of research. When engaging in vaccine discussions with friends, family, or even people you have just met, it is important to communicate the facts. Lindsey Smith, a Leader of Teens for Vaccines and Sophomore at the University of Michigan shared how, “as a teen many people will stay to what their parents believe, and even if they’re learning the basis of the science in class, they might not still be willing to have these conversations with their parents and may still have the same opinions that they’ve been taught.” Keeping this in mind, it is crucial for HCPs to establish trust both with AYAs and parents as sources for vaccine information to provide confidence in making decisions regarding immunization.
When faced with anti-vaccine sentiments, compassion is a key component for success in achieving confidence in vaccine efficacy. In health care offices, parents are often faced with dramatic images of their children being subjected to shots, and this may be difficult to understand or accept. Dr. Paul Offit expressed that, “people really are scared, so in theory the best way to moderate that fear is to present facts in a compelling and passionate, and compassionate way.” We can only hope that facts, rather than tragic illness, will be sufficient in motivating vaccine skeptics. Whether conversations about vaccinating AYAs happen in HCP offices or with family and friends, being prepared to deliver a confident message that vaccinations save lives is always the common goal.
Recommendations Moving Forward
The best way to fight susceptibility to vaccine misinformation is by thinking critically about the effects of not protecting ourselves from preventable diseases and incorporating these thoughts into our day-to-day conversations and decision-making. Arin Parsa, Founder of Teens for Vaccines notes that, “with COVID, the hope is that vaccines are now a mainstream discussion, they’re a mainstream topic. And because of that, I think that now we can really look for and try to incorporate vaccines more into conversations and discussions compared to before the pandemic when it wasn’t really discussed at all.” Anyone can be an advocate, whether they are a HCP, parent, or teen. Knowing where to find accurate vaccine information, and encouraging friends and family to stay up-to-date on their vaccinations is the first step to becoming an advocate for immunizations!
These conversations are important not only for COVID-19 vaccinations, but also for routinely recommended immunizations for AYAs. In discussing her experience getting the HPV vaccine, Lindsey shared how, “back then when I got my first dose, I had no idea why I was getting it. I was kind of just like, ‘oh, my parents said I’m getting it, and my doctor said I’m getting it.’” Through targeted initiatives on social media and in schools, misinformation and stigma surrounding immunization can be diminished to ultimately create an environment more conducive to productive conversations surrounding the safety and effectiveness of available vaccines.
But these conversations shouldn’t only be facilitated by our young people. Through support from HCPs, we can help teens make informed decisions about their future. As Director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHoP) Vaccine Education Center, Dr. Paul Offit urged that, “as clinicians, or providers, we need to be able to explain how you answer those questions,” relating to misinformation and general concerns of the safety of vaccines. With the support of a trustworthy messenger, we create an environment in which barriers to achieving vaccine confidence are broken down and the ability to convey science and facts in a confident and consistent manner is prioritized.
Want to learn more? Check out these immunization resources: