Vaccines are consistently in the news. While the discussion about the safety and necessity of the flu shot, shingles vaccine, or any of the recommended childhood vaccines once dominated the narrative, the conversation has turned to the coronavirus vaccine, even before one has been approved.
Although a number of pharmaceutical companies are at various stages of progress, the discussion is already heated about how quickly the vaccine will be available, who will take it, and when. Some are anxious to receive the vaccine and return to “normal,” while others are hesitant for a number of reasons, including potential side effects. Bryant faculty recently studied vaccine hesitancy (delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines) in the U.S., particularly among young adults.
In a multidisciplinary project between science and communication at Bryant, Julie Volkman, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Communication, Kirsten Hokeness, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the Department of Science and Technology, and Chris Morse, Ph.D., Professor of Communication, teamed up to determine why young adults decide to delay or refuse vaccines.
Their article, “Information source’s influence on vaccine perceptions: an exploration into perceptions of knowledge, risk and safety,” was published in the Journal of Communication in Healthcare in July, with collaborators and Bryant alumnae Alyce Viens (doctoral student in Communication at the University of Connecticut) and Alexandra Dickie (master’s student in Psychology at Rhode Island College).
The study was conducted prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but their findings are relevant at a time when surges in anti-vaccine activity could weaken efforts to control the spread of the coronavirus once a vaccine is available.
The next parental generation
In their study, Volkman, Hokeness, and Morse sought to understand young adults’ knowledge, risk, and safety perceptions of vaccines. In addition, they studied how information sources – including social networks, health professionals, family members, friends, government officials, and news media – impact attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors related to vaccines.
They focused on the college-age population (age 18-24), as indicators of the next parental generation, who will decide whether their children will follow the recommended childhood vaccination schedule.
“It is critical that we, as communication scholars and practitioners, continue to understand perceptions of vaccines in individuals to better understand how to slow the rise of vaccine hesitancy."
“It is critical that we, as communication scholars and practitioners, continue to understand perceptions of vaccines in individuals to better understand how to slow the rise of vaccine hesitancy,” the article read.
The impact of social media and healthcare providers
Volkman, Hokeness, and Morse found that two sources of vaccine information had a significant impact on vaccine hesitancy: social media and healthcare providers.
Negative impact of social media: Many college-age students are exposed to vaccine messages via social media that may contain false or misleading information. Therefore, increases in social media source usage resulted in more negative vaccine beliefs.
- Position impact of healthcare providers: Utilization of healthcare providers as a source of vaccine information resulted in more positive vaccine beliefs and an increase in perceived knowledge of vaccines.
Communication is key
Since the anti-vaccine movement embedded uncertainty into the population about the safety of vaccines, the need to communicate accurate information is more important than ever.
According to Volkman, Hokeness, and Morse, “In cases of college-age students, vaccine information should focus on issues dealing with students’ perceptions of risk and safety, not their level of knowledge,” the paper read. “Additionally, while parents and friends may act as a primary information source, more attention needs to be paid to the negative impact of social media and the positive impact of healthcare providers.”
A culture of collaboration at Bryant
Bryant faculty are known to foster a culture of collaboration. In November, faculty from the College of Arts and Sciences teamed up for an interactive panel discussion, “An Interdisciplinary Look at Outbreak Management.” From their unique perspectives, including scientist, physician assistant, psychologist, mathematician, ethicist, and communication expert, each panelist discussed the ways in which seemingly unrelated disciplines contribute to the global challenge of managing a disease outbreak.
In addition, Bryant is hosting a fall panel series, “Paths to Recovery: Strategies for Getting Back to Work and to a Better Future,” building on the success and positive response to the spring “Pandemic Economics” panel series. Several Bryant faculty members will participate as panelists.