Prove safety to relieve COVID-19 vaccine fears – experts

vacuna influenza
A study of four developing countries — Albania, the Philippines, Jordan, and Nicaragua — sought to describe mothers' knowledge and attitudes about vaccinating their children against influenza. Copyright: Kenneth Pornillos, Banco Mundial/Flickr, bajo licencia Creative Commons 2.0

Speed read

  • ‘Big job’ for scientists to educate public on vaccines
  • Safety perceptions, not fear of disease, central to decision to vaccinate
  • Highlighting flu vaccine safety could increase inoculation uptake

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Immunisation experts have sought to quell safety fears over a future COVID-19 vaccine, as research shows uptake of influenza vaccines in parts of the global South is being stymied by health risk concerns.

Seth Berkley, executive director at Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, says the vaccination community faces a “big job” to overcome misconceptions about a likely novel coronavirus inoculation.

Speaking after last week’s funding pledge summit, Gavi chair Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said it was important for communities in the global South to know civil society was being consulted ahead of any possible coronavirus vaccination programme.

“I understand that, given the time pressures, people are somewhat concerned by the safety profile of some of these vaccines.”

Joe Cerrell, global policy and advocacy managing director, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

The international community pledged a record US$8.8 billion to Gavi, which helps vaccinate half of the world’s children against diseases and will coordinate a new COVID-19 vaccine financing instrument.

Joe Cerrell, global policy and advocacy managing director at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, says the science community needs to build confidence by communicating how researchers produce safe vaccines.

The best thing to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus is to spread facts, Cerrell says. “I understand that, given the time pressures, people are somewhat concerned by the safety profile of some of these vaccines,” he says.

Berkley says that although scientists are working to shorten the vaccine development timeline, this would not weaken the safety tests.

Concerns were raised in April about the success of COVID-19 treatment and vaccine trials after African communities in France warned relatives in Africa to refuse to take part. Two prominent French researchers had suggested carrying out medical trials in Africa because of the high level of exposure to the virus due to a lack of personal protection and weak health systems.

A wide-ranging study that covered the Philippines, Jordan, Nicaragua and Albania found that, despite a high influenza burden in middle-income countries, paediatric vaccination coverage remained low.

Communications campaigns that highlight vaccine safety and effectiveness could be key to increasing influenza inoculation uptake, according to the study published in Vaccine last week (2 June).

Many public health campaigns focus on the severity of the disease and not on how the vaccine works, which is what matters to people, co-author Aubree Gordon, from the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, tells SciDev.Net.

Researchers interviewed more than 3500 mothers and sought to describe their knowledge and attitudes about influenza illnesses and vaccination. They then identified the characteristics of mothers who intended to vaccinate their child.

Perceptions about safety and effectiveness were the most important predictors of a mother’s intent to vaccinate her baby, according to the study, rather than fears about the severity of the disease.

However, Lorena Tapia, a virologist and paediatrician at the University of Chile who did not participate in the study, says that when the media reports that a flu outbreak has been serious “it immediately improves the vaccination rates of the at-risk groups”.

In the Philippines, just 34 per cent of mothers reported some understanding of the influenza vaccine. This was higher in Nicaragua, at 48 per cent, and 62 per cent in Jordan.

“Although in general the results are close to what was expected, we were surprised by the low knowledge they had in the Philippines about influenza,” Gordon says.

In the Philippines, 66 per cent of mothers declared knowing nothing about influenza, yet said they were “very” or “extremely” worried about the disease. The reason, the authors say, is lack of access to information.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Latin America & Caribbean and Global desks.