Reading Parental Hesitancy
Understanding complexities and clear communication are key considerations when creating messaging and communications strategies for COVID-19 vaccines in children
Vaccine hesitancy is a hot topic. Even for the science-accepting among us, the emergence of variants and their indeterminant effect on vaccines adds to the dizzying array of information to sift through with the assistance of public health and medical experts. If vaccines are approved for emergency use for younger children later this year, will parental hesitancy differ from pre-pandemic concerns around childhood immunization for communicable illnesses like measles, mumps and polio?
Studies over the last several decades have shown that vaccine anxiety is particularly prevalent among women, especially those with children. Do these patterns hold true for the pandemic, or are male-identifying parents more invested in these debates today because they have been recently vaccinated, the stakes suddenly seem higher and more immediate, or for other reasons?
Clear communication key to creating confidence
My study attempts to identify some possible pressure points ahead of vaccines being approved for younger children. Scientists and public health researchers are well-positioned to address questions of safety and efficacy. As a health humanities researcher, my concern lies with the rhetoric and language informing debates, as well as the dominant narratives that structure vaccine hesitancy. If the terms of immunization debates change, messaging and communication strategies may also require adjustment.
The pandemic has taught us that clear communication will be essential when vaccines receive emergency use approval for younger children. Parental confidence is precarious and may not withstand the mixed or inconsistent messaging that has dogged the roll-out of the AstraZeneca vaccine, for example.
Currently, vaccine uptake among women of all demographics is outpacing that of men throughout North America, suggesting that there will be no direct line of continuity between pre-COVID parental hesitancy when gender is considered as a factor. Some important considerations, as we continue to consider audiences relates to differing levels of privilege, include access based on class and race, as well as understanding how people on the margins, such as parents outside of the gender binary, may feel about vaccination.
Understand complexities that lead to hesitancy
Understanding positions of both privilege and marginalization is critical. Members of oppressed groups have not always had the option of declining vaccination in the past. There are historical reasons why certain groups might have cause to distrust public health initiatives sponsored by a state that has devalued their children’s lives.
In the current context, unequal access and practical difficulties involved in taking time off work to take children to appointments also complicate this question of hesitancy. This is particularly true for mothers, on whom these responsibilities typically fall.
If identity is a complex concept, so too is immunity. Indications that a percentage of vaccinated adults may not be inclined to make the same choices for their younger children raises the prospect of immune parents with unprotected children. It follows that, like vaccine hesitancy, COVID immunity will be shifting and variable for some time to come.
Dr. Kelly McGuire is a health humanities researcher, and associate professor in the departments of English and Gender & Social Justice at Trent University. This article originally appeared in Metroland-Durham Division.