McMaster to study vaccine hesitancy and immune response in Indigenous communities

McMaster University is leading a study that will investigate vaccine hesitancy and immune response in Six Nations of the Grand River, Lac La Ronge Indian Band in Saskatchewan and Wendake in Quebec.

While Six Nations of the Grand River struggles with vaccination rates, Lac La Ronge Indian Band excels

Six Nations of the Grand River is one of three Indigenous communities in a study about vaccine hesitancy and immune response. (sixnationscovid19.ca)

McMaster University is leading a study that will investigate vaccine hesitancy and immune response in Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario, Lac La Ronge Indian Band in Saskatchewan and Wendake in Quebec.

"We know the vaccines are the only way out of this pandemic and we see the vaccines are working and are making a difference, but there's little information known as to the factors influencing vaccine acceptance," Lac La Ronge Chief Tammy Cook-Searson told CBC Hamilton.

Cook-Searson said McMaster will work alongside the University of Saskatchewan and Lavalle University.

McMaster's Dr. Sonia Anand, the principal investigator of the research, said Indigenous communities are at higher risk of getting COVID-19 because some live in multigenerational homes and congregate settings. She also said a lower socioeconomic status is a factor.

"We felt this study was a way to have that conversation around the pros and cons of vaccination and, where we could, help individuals overcome their hesitancy … and maybe bring about more vaccination," said Anand, who is a senior scientist at McMaster's Population Health Research Institute and a professor of medicine.

"Why rates of transmission are higher in these communities has a lot to do with … the social circumstances and challenges First Nations communities still have to this day."

McMaster’s Dr. Sonia Anand is the principal investigator of the research. (McMaster University)

Six Nations' health director Lori Davis Hill said research assistants will encourage people getting vaccinated to participate in the study.

"They work with them to do a blood sample and there are a series of questionnaires community members fill in on their own and that has been very effective," she said.

"We want to see from a collective how can we better support our community and I think that data can contribute to that."

They're using social media and word of mouth to include unvaccinated people.

The research comes as experts have stressed the importance of vaccination and booster shots given an uptick in Omicron cases.

One goal of study is to raise vaccination rates

Six Nations has struggled with low vaccination rates. On Wednesday, the Six Nations website showed 53 per cent of residents have one dose and 46 per cent have two.

"There is a lot of resistance and it is based on some colonial history and lack of trust in the health-care system," Davis Hill said.

Public health teams have hosted mass vaccination clinics, mobile clinics, vaccinating people in their homes, offering vaccines at the local health centre and doing lots of education.

The community has seen 862 total cases since March 2020.

"One death was too many and 15 had had a huge impact on our community," Davis Hill  said.

Chief Tammy Cook-Searson of the Lac La Ronge says she hopes the study sheds a light on Indigenous issues. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

But lagging vaccination rates isn't an issue in all Indigenous communities.

Lac La Ronge Indian Band is made up of six communities, four of which have more than 80 per cent of their population partially vaccinated, according to data provided to CBC Hamilton. 

Grandmother's Bay has 96 per cent of residents with one dose and 77 per cent with two.

Cook-Searson also noted her community had to fight to get access to Moderna vaccines and at one point, community members were offered $300 to get a shot.

Six Nations has been a part of the research for a year now, but  Lac La Ronge and Wendake are just starting to get involved.

Davis Hill said her target is to get 500 vaccinated and 500 unvaccinated participants from Six Nations. So far they have some 300 vaccinated participants and 15 unvaccinated people.

The research should take about 18 months, Cook-Searson.

"This type of research will bring our issues to the forefront," she said.