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Guest View: Regional vaccine mistrust and hesitancy not new to public health

Guest View: Regional vaccine mistrust and hesitancy not new to public health

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The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine against COVID-19. But many question the vaccine’s safety, even though the clinical trial data shows the vaccine is 95% effective in preventing COVID-19.

Vaccine mistrust and hesitancy is not new. The World Health Organization (WHO) named vaccine hesitancy as a top 10 global health threat in 2019, as vaccines are a cost-effective and successful way of avoiding disease. According to the WHO, false and misleading information causes mistrust in the fight to eradicate or control any disease. The concern is that misinformation could undermine the COVID-19 vaccine and other important vaccines such as the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine that can help us get back to and preserve our daily routines.

Sabrina Mitchell, executive director of Clinch River Health Services, says misleading information about vaccines and the pandemic has led to declines in HPV vaccination in Southwest Virginia.

The HPV vaccine prevents a common virus that can lead to cancer later in life. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), close to 80 million American men and women are infected by HPV, causing close to 36,000 cases of cancer in the United States. Despite the vaccine’s success in significantly dropping HPV infections by 86% in teenage girls, many are not vaccinated due to misinformation.

Mitchell reports misinformation plays a role in low HPV vaccination rates. False information that links vaccines to autism and claims only sexually active people benefit from the HPV vaccine discourages immunization. She encourages her patients to get the HPV vaccine by asking them to “take the steps now to protect yourself and your loved ones so that they never have to hear those words that you have HPV, cervical cancer or oral cancer.”

The pandemic has also caused a drop in HPV vaccinations in the region. Mitchell said there has been overall decline in well-child visits since the beginning of the pandemic. Clinch River Health System has taken several steps to encourage patients to bring children in for well-child visits, such as scheduling well-child visits in the morning before visits from sick children.

Research from the University of Virginia (UVA) found health beliefs and questions of vaccine safety are barriers to people getting and completing the HPV vaccination. The COVID-19 vaccine, like the HPV vaccine, is a multistep injection. There are concerns the two-step process of the COVID-19 vaccine could impact vaccination rates. According to a CDC annual vaccine survey, HPV vaccination has been historically low in people returning for follow-up doses. UVA’s research shows a combination of strategies may improve vaccine completion, including reminders, education and scheduling follow-up appointments.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends families to stay up to date on all vaccines, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many clinics are making safety a priority by scheduling different times for well-child visits, providing additional waiting spaces or offering drive-thru immunization clinics. There are actions you can take such as asking the clinic for a reminder when it’s time for your second dose or scheduling the second dose appointment in advance. If you have questions about a vaccine’s safety, such as HPV or COVID-19, it is important to ask your doctor for reliable information.

This article is from the Office of Community Outreach and Engagement for the University of Virginia Cancer Center. Sabrina Mitchell is a member of the Cancer Center Without Walls Southwest Virginia Community Advisory Board in addressing cancer disparities and access to care in Appalachia. For more information, visit the Cancer Center Without Walls’ website:

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