Clinical General Public Health

Let Me Be Brief: Vaccine Hesitancy

A series of briefs by the Texas Medical Students

By: Grayson Jackson, Kate Holder, and Whitney Stuard

Vaccine hesitancy refers to when an individual refuses or delays receiving an available vaccine, primarily due to misinformation, lack of health literacy, or fear.1 This issue—especially in the setting of the COVID-19 crisis and growing misinformation about science and medicine nationwide—is of great importance for medical students as future physicians and scientific communicators. Widespread vaccine refusal may result in untold public health consequences, including outbreaks of vaccine-preventable infectious diseases and rising healthcare costs. Vaccine hesitancy is often observed by quantifying nonmedical vaccine exemptions from state-mandated immunizations. In Texas, these exemptions have tripled since the 2010–11 school year.2 Data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control show that during the 2018–19 school year (the most recent available), Texas reported 2.2% of kindergarteners with a nonmedical exemption, amounting to 390,000 exempted children second only to California.3

The ongoing health crisis caused by COVID-19 has placed tremendous hope on vaccine compliance as the most practical way to stifle the global pandemic. Scientific facts have become increasingly politicized, and vaccines represent one of the key topics in which such facts have become distorted and polarized. Some questions (i.e., whether vaccines cause autism) have persistently circulated among vaccine-hesitant groups for years, whereas the COVID-19 crisis has heightened the risk of disinformation as vaccines by Pfizer, Moderna, and others are rolled out nationwide. It is incumbent upon us as future physicians to engage in the responsible dissemination of correct information about vaccines’ safety and efficacy. However, one should also avoid rushing to condemnation or judgment of vaccine-hesitant patients and parents which may only intensify their opposition.4

The Texas Medical Association (TMA) has worked to actively combat vaccine hesitancy and problems with vaccine availability throughout the state. The TMA has been working to support vaccinations including influenza, HPV, MMR and others throughout its history. TMA’s current vaccine advocacy agenda is still working to advocate for flu shots during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The TMA Medical Student Section (MSS) has also continually supported vaccine availability to all Texas residents and promoted Be Wise Immunize chapters throughout the medical school within the state. In addition to TMA’s Be Wise Immunize program, TMA has published a variety of policies supporting vaccinations to increase overall vaccination rates. Policy such as 135.012 Immunization Rates in Texas, 260.072 Conscientious Objection to Immunizations, and 135.022 Adolescent Parent Immunizations all work to increase vaccination rates within the state, promote the Texas Vaccines for Children Program and the Adult Safety Net Program, as well as combat vaccine hesitancy. In addition, during the COVID-19 pandemic TMA has encouraged the #ThisIsOurShot campaign to combat vaccine hesitancy.

The TMA Medical Student Section supports widespread vaccine availability in a prompt and timely manner to all Texas residents. The MSS supports incorporation of the COVID-19 vaccine into the mandatory vaccine category once it is federally authorized beyond emergency use. This may become increasingly important as we see young people and college students, who deny the vaccine due to not fearing the less negative COVID-19 health outcomes, become the population disproportionately responsible for COVID-19 spread.

As a medical student, you have probably heard countless friends and family members discuss their hesitancy to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Many people have vehemently opposed the COVID-19 vaccination simply because they have fallen victim to false information. As medical students and advocates, we should commit to broadcasting truth and combating misinformation in our local communities. We have the wherewithal and the voice to endorse the COVID-19 vaccine.

1 MacDonald NE; SAGE Working Group on Vaccine Hesitancy. Vaccine hesitancy: Definition, scope and determinants. Vaccine. 2015;33(34):4161-4164. doi:10.1016/j.vaccine.2015.04.036



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Fast Facts

  • The COVID-19 vaccine cannot give you the coronavirus or make you test positive for the coronavirus.
  • Even if you have already recovered from COVID-19, you should receive the vaccine to prevent reinfection.
  • The COVID-19 vaccine will not alter your DNA or impair your ability to have children.
  • The COVID-19 vaccine is demonstrably safe and effective and tested through rigorous clinical trials.
Clinical Opinion Public Health

It’s Time to Take Responsibility for our Unimmunized Patients

There is an old parable about a tree that falls onto an old dirt road in the forest. On the day the tree falls, the daughter of a rich king is passing through the forest in her carriage. The carriage runs over the tree, loses control, and crashes. A passing lumberjack sees the overturned carriage and carries the princess to safety. Her father, the king, throws a great celebration in honor of the lumberjack, and rewards the hero with riches.  In the next village, another tree falls on the road.  In this village, the lumberjack sees the fallen trunk and with great difficulty carries it off of the road.  The princess never crashes and she continues on her way, none the wiser.  A hero all the same, there is no celebration and no reward for this lumberjack.  This allegory wins no awards for its subtlety.  While life-saving and innovative treatments are often lauded by the general public, the praises of preventive measures often go unsung.

Vaccines are considered among the safest and most effective public health interventions. [1] There is no dispute among the scientific community, and repeated peer-reviewed studies have detailed the value of vaccines as preventive health measures. These studies collectively support the conclusion that the benefits of using vaccines to minimize illness outweigh the potential risks.  It is precisely because of the overwhelming success of immunizations that people have little or no personal experience with diseases like smallpox, or chickenpox, or polio.

Parental autonomy suggests that parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit.  As a result of this benign belief, however, more young parents believe that vaccination should be a choice. [2] To combat the anti-vaccination movement, health care providers have traditionally relied on their role as medical experts and discussed the scientific data, expecting patients to trust in evidence-based medicine. But the inability of overwhelming evidence to quell controversy and resolve debate has led to greater polarization—biased reasoning has made discussion counterproductive and has led to the intensification of beliefs for many of those opposed to vaccination.  As a result, there are groups of under-vaccinated children which increase the risk of an outbreak in the general population. [3]

There are patients who will continue to refuse to accept research and statistics, even when presented by a trusted family physician. These patients have fallen victim to misinformation and fear-mongering. Their concerns include side effects, immunization schedules, financial incentives, and “Big Pharma”, but more broadly represent suspicion of biomedical research and healthcare providers.  [1]

Physicians often suffer from the curse of knowledge—an inability to recall the lack of understanding that came before learning a new concept. This may play a role in the notoriously poor communication skills of doctors.  For example, watch a third year medical student discuss a clinical subject with a first year medical student and notice the difference in the use of clinical jargon.

Learning how to read a research paper, understanding how and why the study was performed, and recognizing the implications of its conclusions are skills taken for granted by those in the scientific community. These skills take years to learn, yet clinicians reference data and statistics to their patients indiscriminately.  If we want patients to trust us, we have to admit when what we are doing is not working, and be willing to change. For some patients, citing facts and figures is not an effective tactic.

It can be easy to vilify those opposed to vaccination, but new parents continue to be drawn to the movement every day. In a culture of blame, when there is an outbreak of an infectious disease, we instinctively search for someone to condemn and hold culpable. We would be better served by identifying what makes individuals skeptical and how we can change misconceptions and behaviors. The issue at hand involves trust.  Some patients will not trust what we have to say as providers. We have to consult the experts—we must refer them to their grandparents.

Grandparents can discuss the ominous nature of diseases that many of us, due to vaccination, are not frequently exposed to.  They can explain what it means to have a cousin under quarantine or a sibling living with the complications of an infectious disease.  They can express what it means to lose an infant child to a vaccine-preventable illness. Anti-vaccination parents have had the impact of their decisions mitigated due to many years of previous vaccination and herd immunity—a community’s general protection from disease because of a high proportion of immunity in its members.  It is time for us, as medical professionals, to admit that we must change our tactics.  Some patients may not understand the consequences of many of these infectious diseases, but I bet their grandparents do.


Featured image:
Clipart edited by Ilya Aylyarov