Written by Noah Louis-Ferdinand
Hesitancy towards public health is now something everyone has to care about. Last month, viral myths about COVID vaccines continued to reach the mainstream more than two years after authorization, despite their saving up to 3 million lives. The misinformation we continue to see online and in our communities highlights the limits of science without public trust.
This past September, one of the largest pro-vaccine conferences in the US reconvened to address this exact problem. It was organized by Voices for Vaccines (VFV), a Task Force program which helps coordinate advocates around the country. Few in attendance were entirely surprised by hesitancy during COVID, as even before the pandemic tens of thousands of Americans died of vaccine preventable diseases each year. Instead, presenters pointed to warning signs such as the 2014 and 2019 measles outbreaks.
That takes deep investment in outreach. VFV puts a lot of energy into public webinars where anyone can come and ask questions about vaccines. For example, this past winter volunteers got to chat with Dr. Joe Bresee, who leads Respiratory Virus Prevention at The Task Force, before going out to make a difference in their own communities.
That said, vaccine confidence is a process that doesn’t always start with “advocate.” We need resources people can use at their own pace. VFV has not only been responding to individual concerns for years but also creating a collection of answers and tools accessible to anyone. The free ‘Voices for Vaccines’ app has a smooth interface that matches your question with a direct answer from our archives in seconds. The facts have to be more accessible than misinfo so that people can respond in real time.
Reliable information should also be engaging. You can spend all day reading false yet gripping news about the COVID vaccine, which some have done since 2020. Providing a deeper understanding of how vaccines work and how we know they’re safe creates a durable kind of confidence not swayed by online rumors.
VFV just launched a comprehensive online course on vaccine science to inspire such confidence: The Vaccine Quest. It’s free, self-paced and genuinely fun to let people learn in a way that’s easy for them. And it’s shareable, designed not only for individuals but also for educators in our schools, health departments and more. Everyone should have these opportunities to learn because we each play a role in protecting our community.
By consistently empowering people who care about the health of their friends and family, you create organic support that doesn’t fade when COVID is off the frontpage. The fact that rumors are still making headlines in 2023 tells you we don’t invest enough in outreach.
This investment is overdue here and abroad. In a previous post, we discussed how global outreach is pandemic preparedness. Local advocates in countries already struggling with neglected diseases found themselves dealing with COVID misinfo. The Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Center (NTD-SC)—which ironically seeks to increase ivermectin uptake—recently convened a meeting of global health organizations to focus on reaching ‘zero dose’ populations. Their recommendations are similar to those for vaccine advocates, giving health workers “the skills to respond [to] fear of adverse events, perceived ineligibility, and low risk perception.”
As global vaccination programs also faltered during the pandemic, we have an unprecedented need to make public health more accessible for everyone. The challenge and the change that needs to happen are bigger than our health agencies. Individuals, families and entire communities have to feel invested in the science that keeps us all safe. And that means we have to give them the tools to play an active role.
This work of bringing the public into public health is not optional. As Harvard epidemiologist Bill Hanage presciently noted only weeks before the COVID-19 vaccine rollout: “Vaccines don’t help on their own. We need vaccination.”