Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Flu Clinic Counters Vaccine Myths, Hesitancy

(L to R): UTHSA medical students Swetha Maddipudi, Brittany Hansen, Charles Wang, Carson Cortino, faculty advisor Kaparaboyna Kumar, MD, Ryan Wealther, Sidney Akabogu, Irma Ruiz, and Frank Jung pose with the TMA Be Wise Immunize banner. Photo courtesy by Ryan Wealther

Ryan Wealther
Medical Student, UT Health San Antonio Long School of Medicine
Student Member, Texas Medical Association

Editor’s Note: August is National Immunization Awareness Month. This article is part of a Me&My Doctor series highlighting and promoting the use of vaccinations.

“Can the flu shot give you the flu?”
“Is it dangerous for pregnant women to get a flu shot?”
“Can vaccines cause autism?”

These were questions women at Alpha Home, a residential substance abuse rehabilitation center in San Antonio, asked my fellow medical students and me during a flu vaccine discussion. It is easy to see why these questions were asked, as vaccine misinformation is common today.

UTHSA medical student Frank
 Jing (left) gets a vaccine from
Kaparaboyna Kumar, MD, (right).
Photo courtesy of Ryan Wealther
“No” is the answer to all the questions. These were exactly the types of myths we set out to dispel at our vaccination drive.

UT Health San Antonio Long School of Medicine medical students (under the supervision of Kaparaboyna Ashok Kumar, MD, faculty advisor for the Texas Medical Association Medical Student Section at UT Health San Antonio) hosted the vaccine drive at Alpha Home with the support of TMA’s Be Wise – Immunize℠ program, a public health initiative that aims to increase vaccinations and vaccine awareness through shot clinics and education. Our program consisted of a vaccination drive and an interactive, educational presentation that addressed influenza, common flu shot questions, and general vaccine myths. The Alpha Home residents could ask us questions during the program.

We were interested to see if our educational program could answer Alpha Home residents’ questions about vaccinations and allay their hesitations about getting a flu vaccination. To gauge this, we created a brief survey.

(Before I discuss the results of the survey, I should define vaccine hesitancy. Vaccine hesitancy is a concept defined by the World Health Organization; it relates to when patients do not vaccinate despite having access to vaccines. Vaccine hesitancy is a problem because it prevents individuals from receiving their vaccinations. That makes them more susceptible to getting sick from vaccine-preventable diseases.)

We surveyed the residents’ opinions about vaccinations before and after our educational program. While opinions about shots improved with each survey question, we saw the most significant attitude change reflected in answers to the questions “I am concerned that vaccinations might not be safe,” and “How likely are you to receive a flu shot today?” We had informed the residents and improved their understanding and acceptance of immunizations.

Post-survey results show more residents at the Alpha Home shifted to more positive attitudes about vaccines,
 after learning more about their effectiveness by trusted members of the medical community. Graph by Ryan Wealther
Why is this important? First, our findings confirm what we already knew: Education by a trusted member of the medical community can effect change. In fact, it is widely known that physician recommendation of vaccination is one of the most critical factors affecting whether patients receive an influenza vaccination. Perhaps some added proof to this is that a few of the Alpha Home residents were calling me “Dr. Truth” by the end of the evening.

Second, our findings add to our understanding of adult vaccine hesitancy. This is significant because most of what we know about vaccine hesitancy is limited to parental attitudes toward their children’s vaccinations. Some parents question shots for their children, and many of the most deadly diseases we vaccinate against are given in childhood, including polio, tetanus, measles, and whooping cough shots. However, adults need some vaccinations as well, like the yearly influenza vaccine. 

After taking part in the UTHSA educational program, more residents at the Alpha Home shared more willingness to receive the flu vaccine. Graph by Ryan Wealther
Another reason improving attitudes is important is that receiving a flu shot is even more timely during the COVID-19 pandemic because it decreases illnesses and conserves health care resources. Thousands of people each year are hospitalized from the flu, and with hospitals filling up with coronavirus patients, we could avoid adding dangerously ill flu patients to the mix. Lastly, these findings are important because once a COVID-19 vaccination becomes available, more people might be willing to receive it if their overall attitude toward immunizations is positive. 

Though the COVID-19 vaccine is still in development, it is not immune to vaccine hesitancy. Recent polls have indicated up to one-third of Americans would not receive a COVID-19 vaccine even if it were accessible and affordable; work is already being done to try to raise awareness and acceptance. In addition, misinformation about the COVID vaccine is circulating widely. (Someone recently asked me if the COVID vaccine will implant a microchip in people, and I have seen the same myth circulating on social media. It will not.) This myth, however, illustrates the need for health care professionals to answer patients’ questions and to assuage their concerns.

Vaccines work best when many people in a community receive them, and vaccine hesitancy can diminish vaccination rates, leaving people who can't get certain vaccines susceptible to these vaccine-preventable diseases. For example, babies under 6 months of age should not receive a flu shot, so high community vaccination rates protect these babies from getting sick with the flu. Our educational program at Alpha Home is just one example of how health care professionals can increase awareness and acceptance of shots. As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, we need to ensure children and adults receive their vaccinations as recommended by their physician and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

I encourage readers who have questions about the vaccinations they or their child may need to talk with their physician. As health care professionals, we’re more than happy to answer your questions. 

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