Discussing vaccines with patients: Vaccine communication experts available for interviews

Saad B. Omer, MBBS, PhD, director, Yale Institute for Global Health, is a renowned vaccine researcher. While he works on evaluating vaccines against dangerous and novel pathogens, a third of his portfolio focuses on vaccine acceptance. Vaccine acceptance research centers on the idea that attitudes towards vaccines should be studied with academic rigor.

“Generally speaking, until recently, we didn’t have an evidenced-based approach to vaccine communication in this country,” said Dr. Omer. “That needs to be scaled up.”

Dr. Omer works on vaccine acceptance domestically and abroad and he says the most trusted sources of information varies from population to population, but across the board, healthcare providers are at the top of the list and need to be empowered when it comes to having conversations with people about vaccines – particularly parents.

Marietta Vazquez, MD, Pediatric Infectious Disease, Yale New Haven Hospital, researches vaccine effectiveness– how well vaccines work in everyday practice across diverse populations. She also conducts long-term post licensure vaccines studies.

Dr. Vazquez shares that while childhood vaccines have high rates of compliance (over 90 percent), this differs by geography. She also says nationally we need to do a better job of communicating the importance of adult vaccinations and pregnancy vaccinations.

Focus on prevention: Dr. Omer’s article in JAMA Pediatrics titled Communicating About Vaccines in a Fact-Resistant World, discusses that one promising approach to productive vaccine conversations is for physicians to provide information on the disease/s the vaccine prevents with people who are looking to learn more.

Open conversations: “We should not be yelling at parents for having questions,” said Dr. Omer. “If yelling at parents were a good idea – teenagers would be the best communicators.”

Dr. Omer emphasizes the need for spaces where people can have evidence based conversations.

“I want everyone to feel comfortable coming to their healthcare provider with questions,” says Dr. Vazquez. “Parents have the ability and the right to make decisions and should be given the respect of frank conversations. It is helpful to ask ‘what have you heard’ and ‘what are your concerns’ and then really listen.”

Cultural sensitivity: “For minority populations, there is a historical background for lack of trust in the medical establishment,” says Dr. Vazquez. “Everyone says education is the answer to vaccine compliance, but it needs to go both ways. The medical community needs to understand where patients are coming from.”

Vaccine communication at work

When these principles are followed, more people are open to receiving evidence based information. This played out when Dr. Vazquez noticed something troubling around influenza.

She was frustrated that there was not a flu vaccine that worked well in babies under 6 months, leaving them vulnerable to the common infection. “We know that pregnant mothers in the last trimester pass antibodies to their infants, so we looked at protection differently.

In her study published in Clinical Infectious Diseases, Dr. Vazquez and team examined immunizing pregnant mothers to see if the infant could develop antibodies through the maternal vaccination. The study found that when mothers were immunized during pregnancy, their infants were 94 percent less likely to be hospitalized for flu. It was the first time that it was shown in the U.S. that giving a mother the influenza vaccine during pregnancy protected the infant.

At the time, fewer than 20 percent of pregnant women were receiving the influenza vaccine. The next step was making this information widely available.

Dr. Vazquez and team conducted focus groups with pregnant women to understand their attitudes towards getting the flu shot while pregnant. Her team learned that many of the women did not know getting the vaccine themselves could protect their babies. Dr. Vazquez and her team then created educational brochures in multiple languages emphasizing the ‘two for one’ vaccine approach. They also conducted a randomized trial that showed the brochure made a difference in the number of pregnant women who received the flu shot.

Vaccine surveillance

The bar for safety is high for vaccines; much higher than therapeutics since it involves primarily healthy people instead of sick people.

When it comes to rumors around vaccines, Dr. Omer says they need to be addressed. However, “clinical trials must focus on the right thing, legitimate research questions around efficacy and safety and what vaccine surveillance systems are picking up. “Sometimes in science the evidence is complicated. But decisions should be made by evaluating the benefit verses risk profile.”

Learn more about COVID-19 Vaccine Information on Distribution and Answers to Other Common Questions.