Despite immunizations being some of the most effective, life-saving public health interventions in history, anti-vaccine propaganda and vaccine hesitancy have presented challenges for clinicians trying to convince patients to get recommended vaccinations. Vaccine hesitancy is persistent, despite the system for developing and approving vaccines in the United States involving the FDA, NIH, and CDC, which help to ensure that Americans receive well-tested, safe, and effective vaccines.

“To successfully convince our patients to take a vaccine, it’s imperative that health professionals develop effective messaging, communication, and outreach strategies,” says David T. Tayloe Jr., MD, FAAP, who authored a review in the North Carolina Medical Journal on immunization amid the growing anti-vaccine movement. “This is a timely, critical public health issue in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The only way we will end the pandemic is by ensuring that safe, effective vaccines are accepted by the vast majority of people. The same can be said for vaccines indicated for many other viruses and diseases.”

Addressing Anti-Vaccine Forces

According to Dr. Tayloe, vocal anti-vaccine forces on social media and anti-vaccine rhetoric from other outlets are causing many people to become hesitant about accepting the need for immunizations. “There is no scientific basis for the claims of the anti-vaccine movement,” he says. “Anti-vaccine leaders prioritize what they believe is best for their children and themselves, even if their choices lack reason and logic and are detrimental to public health. They often cite ‘freedom of choice’ as a chief motivator for being against vaccines.”

Because of extremely successful immunization efforts throughout America’s history, it can be easy for some people to believe vaccine-related injury is more likely than a vaccine-preventable disease. Most individuals have never witnessed the death of a patient from a vaccine-preventable disease. What some people fail to understand is that life-threatening, vaccine-preventable diseases can recur if immunization rates to fall below the 90% range.

Becoming Better Vaccine Advocates

Since the anti-vaccine movement’s inception in the 1980s, clinicians have struggled to maintain satisfactory immunization levels. As a result, strategies for communication and outreach must be in place to empower successful immunization programs. Several allies have emerged in these efforts, including:

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Vaccinate Your Family
  • The Immunization Action Coalition
  • The Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia

Studies show that the primary indicator of vaccine acceptance is the healthcare provider. “It’s critical to take extra time to explain to patients why getting vaccinated is important,” Dr. Tayloe says. “We need to use simple, easy-to-understand verbal and written messages that are communicated on a level that reaches many people who regularly log on to social media, watch TV, and listen to the radio. Clinicians who have been vaccinated should tell their patients about their experience with vaccinations to allay potential concerns.” Outreach initiatives should also involve grassroots groups, including schools, churches, businesses, and civic groups (Table).

Each clinical encounter presents an opportunity to dispel myths and false beliefs about vaccinations. “We have 10 to 15 minutes to spend with patients when they voluntarily come to us for care,” says Dr. Tayloe. “During these encounters, we should address their chief complaint but also discuss uptake of vaccines. The power of a recommendation to be vaccinated that comes directly from a healthcare provider cannot be underestimated. We can help the cause by assuring patients that we know and trust the science behind these vaccines.”

Providing Trusted Education Information

Dr. Tayloe says it is important to be prepared with trusted educational information to answer questions from all types of vaccine-hesitant patients, many of whom are highly intelligent. “We also need to invest in educating all healthcare professionals who might become involved in immunization efforts so they too can reassure hesitant patients about the safety of vaccines,” he says. “By providing patients with information on immunization science and the history behind it, we may be able to convince vaccine-hesitant individuals to make the right decisions on vaccination.”