Ottawa

Act now to stop anti-vaccine misinformation, says Ottawa researcher

With Canadian regulators expected to approve Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine within days, one Ottawa researcher is urging public health authorities to start addressing false anti-vaccination information now to combat potential vaccine hesitancy.

Recent poll shows some vaccine hesitancy among Canadians, including a willingness to delay shot

A nurse prepares a shot that is part of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in New York. Maxime Lê, an Ottawa master's student, is urging public health authorities to begin to address anti-vaccination misinformation ahead of the COVID-19 vaccine arriving in Canada. (Hans Pennink/Associated Press)

With Canadian regulators expected to approve Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine within days, one Ottawa researcher is urging public health authorities to start addressing false anti-vaccination information now to combat potential vaccine hesitancy.

Maxime Lê, a master's candidate at the University of Ottawa who recently completed his thesis on anti-vaccine arguments in Canada, said now is the time to get ahead of conspiracy theories and misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccine.

One of the best weapons is answering people's questions in a way that builds trust, he said.

"A lot of people are focusing on the logistical issues of vaccine delivery but the focus should indeed rely on that open and transparent communication," Lê told CBC Radio's All in a Day on Tuesday.

"Perhaps one of the reasons why people are so afraid is because their questions are not answered at all."

A recent poll suggests that a fifth of Canadians are undecided about whether to get vaccinated while 16 per cent are against vaccination. Among the majority who said they wanted to get vaccinated, 15 per cent said they would wait several months before the shot and 38 per cent said they would wait one or two months, to make sure everything's going well.

We speak to Maxime Lê, a master's student in communications at the University of Ottawa and a public health consultant on why some people may not want the COVID-19 vaccine and how to change their minds. 7:41

Lê said there are many themes that come up among people who question vaccines, from questioning the toxicity of ingredients, suggesting natural remedies or immunity as superior to vaccines, to the persistent myth that vaccines cause autism.

"People might be hesitant to vaccinate because they have unanswered questions, they have fears, they have concerns that public health authorities aren't exactly addressing in their communications," he said.

Begin consultations now 

Lê suggests public health authorities begin consultations now to hear from residents about why they might be hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccine to ensure they answer people's questions and concerns, whatever they may be. 

He recently met with Ottawa Public Health (OPH) who he said was very receptive to his ideas. CBC reached out to OPH Tuesday but the agency was not able to provide information about its vaccine communications strategy by publishing time.

Lê said it's important that organizations like OPH foster a trusting relationship with the public before anti-vaccination theorists have time to propagate misinformation.

"Anti-vaxxers position themselves as defenders of Canadian civil rights and liberties, and they'll start to say these unscientific claims which, to everyday people, kind of make sense," he said.

"It's a fundamental misunderstanding of what exactly is good science."

Earlier this week Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said 249,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses could arrive in Canada by the end of the year. The first shots will likely be distributed to long-term care home residents and staff.

Documents released by U.S. regulators Tuesday confirmed that Pfizer and BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine strongly protects against COVID-19.

with files from CBC's All in a Day

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