Vaccine Hesitancy Makes Sense
Plenty of people who get the jab are a bit worried about it at first
Vaccines against Covid-19 are rolling out across the world, and it’s a beautiful sight. If you had told most scientists this time last year that we would be seeing effective, safe vaccines preventing Covid-19 infection in every corner of the globe within 12 months, we would probably not have believed you. The monumental amount of work required to get us to this place cannot be overstated — it is a truly spectacular achievement.
But with vaccinations comes inevitable anxiety. Vaccines are, as a rule, a bit scary because they are medical interventions that we give to often perfectly healthy people not to treat their disease but to prevent it. Not only do many of us feel the basic worry that comes with all medicine — it’s never fun to have a needle in your arm — but also the added discomfort that this is something unknown and somewhat undesired.
Now, this is not to say that the vaccines aren’t safe. As I’ve written about before, the Covid-19 immunizations have gone through rigorous research processes, and are even now being scrutinized very carefully in post-licensure monitoring systems. There have been very rare but serious side effects identified for some vaccines — which is actually a wonderful sign of our systems working exactly as they should.
Moreover, Covid-19 itself is a really nasty disease. Even the highest risk vaccine is many times safer than catching the disease itself. As is well understood by now, Covid-19 kills quite a few of the people it infects.
And yet, some people are still worried about getting their Covid-19 shots. So let’s talk about hesitancy, denial, and why no one should be shamed for being worried before getting a jab.
Hesitancy vs. denial
At the outset, we should probably define our terms because there is a world of difference between people who are vaccine hesitant and those who engage in concerted denial.
Hesitancy is a term used to describe people who are considering vaccination, but are unsure about whether they want it or not. The important thing to recognize is that most people who are hesitant to get a vaccine are still interested in the immunization, but are not entirely sure whether they want to go ahead with it.
Denial is a term that describes a much smaller group of very vocal people who spend large amounts of their time spreading total nonsense about vaccination. Plenty of the Covid-19 vaccine denialists have spent years prior to the pandemic talking about entirely debunked ideas such as the vaccine/autism myth, and are doing the same thing now that there’s a new jab to hate.
It’s also worth noting that people who are vaccine hesitant actually aren’t that rare. While denialists make up a tiny fraction of the population, it is much more common to encounter people who are at least a bit worried. Somewhere between 20%–50% of those who are eligible express some concern about getting their immunizations.
It’s also worth reiterating that most of these hesitant people do eventually get vaccinated. Sometimes they are late, sometimes they take a while to convince, but most of them are reasonable people worried about something they don’t yet fully understand. Most can also be reassured with time and adequate information shared by medical providers.
It’s totally normal to be a bit worried. Most of us are. The problem comes when people who dislike vaccinations for whatever reason start spreading outright misinformation.
Getting everyone vaccinated
It is neither kind nor productive to shame the hesitant, those who are worried about getting their Covid-19 shots. This is not only because there is strong evidence that this is an ineffective way to get people to accept vaccines, but because these people represent quite a large portion of the general population, and include, well, many of us.
We’re all in this together. Getting vaccinated helps you personally because it means you are much less likely to get a deadly disease, but it’s also a fantastic win for society to get large numbers of people immunized against Covid-19.
For those of you who are a bit concerned — you are not alone. I would urge anyone who is worried about getting their Covid-19 vaccine to talk to their doctor because they are best positioned to address your health care concerns. For those who are unconcerned and want to convince people to get vaccinated, here’s a great podcast to listen to that will help you to do it effectively.
As for the denialists? I’m the first to admit that it can be fun to have lengthy arguments on Twitter with people who are clearly operating in bad faith, but in all honesty, it’s mostly a waste of time. People who spread total myths about vaccination are usually impossible to convince, and they’re not really interested in evidence, facts, or reasonable discussion. Fortunately, these people are a fairly small minority overall — and the vast majority of us are happy to get a vaccine eventually, even if we are a bit worried at the outset.
I, too, was a bit afraid before reading the evidence and determining it was the best decision I could make. Once I felt clear on the risks (very few) and the benefits (very many), I got the AstraZeneca vaccine.