The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the forefront just how many people are hesitant about getting a vaccine of any sort.
They are not all anti-vaxxers or misguided freedom fighters, they’re ordinary people who would never think to book an appointment for a tetanus or shingles shot.
Paula Van Wyk, a University of Windsor kinesiology professor, is leading a research project aimed at educating adults about vaccines and boosters for a range of illnesses.
The project’s goal is to combat vaccine hesitancy among adults that exists because of misleading information often promoted through social media.
“What COVID has done is catapulted vaccines back to the forefront of discussions,” said van Wyk. “It’s illuminated the fact that a lot of adults don’t realize or know that they should receive vaccines or boosters.”
Van Wyk is collaborating with nursing prof Debbie Kane, computer science prof Ziad Kobti and fellow kinesiology prof Patti Weir to develop tools to distribute reliable, vetted information.
Van Wyk said the evidence is clear that a large percentage of the adult population is not fully vaccinated for diseases that have been around for decades. She points to the mumps outbreak that hit the NHL in 2014 as one example.
More than a dozen players came down with the virus, including Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby. Having been born in 1987, he likely received just one dose of the MMR vaccine to prevent mumps as did many other children in his age range. By the mid-90s, health officials determined two doses offered much better protection.
“We should not have lost control of mumps,” van Wyk said. “The thing is vaccines have been so successful previously that they’re no longer a topic of discussion about why they were developed.”
Vaccines work well at controlling the severity of a number of other diseases such as pertussis, tetanus, influenza, pneumonia and shingles.
The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada provided a $50,000 grant to fund the project for one year.
The centrepiece of the project is an interactive website with a quiz that tests one’s knowledge about vaccines. Information about different vaccines and boosters is provided along with details about when and where individuals can receive their shots.
The team will ask local pharmacies and community agencies to promote the website.
“We’re hoping they’ll help us get the word out,” van Wyk said. “We only have funding for one year but we want the website to be sustainable. It shouldn’t be that hard to keep it active so we’re hoping for some help from one of our community partners.”
The website is live at wevaccine.ca. The group will also distribute information through social media and by mail and handouts. Printed material will be available in Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin and French in an effort to engage immigrants and migrant workers.
Two doctoral students from computer science and one undergrad from kinesiology are helping to build the website and analyze quiz results. They will also help develop educational materials based on the data.
“We want to be able to respond to the needs of the community,” van Wyk said. “We think this will be a valuable resource to have in our community.”
With misinformation and disinformation undermining public health, the UWindsor team wants to help adults make evidence-based decisions about vaccination and hopefully convince them to take a shot.