If you contracted smallpox in the 1600s, came down with polio prior to 1953, or caught the measles before 1963, there was a greater chance that your case could be deadly, life changing, or continue the rapid spread of the disease. Through the development of vaccinations and herd immunity, these infectious diseases — and others — have become less prevalent over time. While vaccines are important tools in public health, hesitancy and heightened risk perceptions toward these immunization methods are increasing — particularly for newer vaccination campaigns like COVID-19 where there’s specific concern of the vaccine’s ingredients, development process, and effectiveness.
To better understand people’s views of vaccines, three Bryant faculty members — Associate Professor of Communication Julie Volkman, Ph.D., Communication Professor Christopher Morse, Ph.D., and School of Health and Behavioral Sciences Director Kirsten Hokeness, Ph.D., — worked with Northern Arizona University’s Ashleigh Day to research risk perceptions and emotions toward vaccines in general as well as the COVID-19 vaccine. Their findings were published this May in The Atlantic Journal of Communication and is a follow-up to previous research on vaccines broadly.
According to researchers, identifying similarities and differences among individuals’ risk perceptions of vaccines help individuals better understand how and why conceptualizations of risk vary and have important implications for risk communication. Risk communication informs the public of risks and persuades individuals to modify their behavior. For vaccines, this information includes providing the public with information on a vaccine’s benefits, effectiveness, safety, and side effects. Through this information, the public can weigh an immunization’s risks and benefits to decide if they should get the vaccine.
Designed in January of 2020, this study originally focused on risk perceptions and emotions toward general vaccines; however, the study quickly evolved and was redesigned to include thoughts on COVID-19 due to the pandemic’s escalating presence. Researchers collected qualitative data from 336 people between ages 18 and 95 and asked 13 open-ended questions about their information seeking behaviors, vaccine attitudes, and risk perceptions related to vaccines in general and the COVID-19 vaccine.
The study’s findings suggest that while there are risk perceptions surrounding vaccines in general, emotions surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine are more prevalent and specific. Focusing on the COVID-19 vaccine, some participants were concerned that the vaccine would be used maliciously and cause harm to minority groups; side effects would be worse because the development of the vaccine was “rushed,” and there was an increase in distrust of government and pharmaceutical companies. Individuals with positive feelings toward the vaccine expressed hope that a vaccine would help society return to normal.
When looking at participants’ responses concerning vaccines in general, researchers found little concern about malicious use and harm to minority populations. Additionally, while there was some worry about the vaccine’s development process, the concerns were not as intense or specific for widespread vaccinations. Positive responses toward vaccines in general included happiness and hope toward the promise of eradicating diseases.
While participants’ comments reveal that they can manage both positive and negative perceptions of vaccines at one time, researchers note that there is room for further study. Since the group used the Planned Risk Information Seeking Model (PRISM) when collecting data, additional work should focus on the relationship between risk perceptions, positive and negative emotions, and information seeking to further explicate the relationships discovered in this study.