Coronavirus: Why are almost a quarter of Kiwis still vaccine hesitant?

Record numbers of people are getting vaccinated in an accelerated roll out under lockdown conditions, but not everyone is so eager to get the potentially life-saving jab. 

Ministry Of Health (MOH) surveys have found 23 percent of the population is somewhere between ‘unsure’ and ‘definitely not getting vaccinated’. 

Two doses of the Pfizer vaccine are 88 percent effective against the Delta variant of COVID-19. And the protection it offers against hospitalisation is a whopping 96 percent.

The Government doesn't have a vaccination goal, and without children being vaccinated, and with new strains mutating, reaching herd immunity will be challenging. But the more people who are vaccinated, the more effective the control of the disease.   

Experts say the current outbreak will be a wake up call for some of the vaccine hesitant. Already there have been reports of the vaccine hesitant turning up at vaccine clinics.

"I think with the rise in cases and the rise in vaccination rates that's available for the general public, we've seen all over the world that there is a slight bump in getting a vaccine. So we'd likely see that here as well," says Senior Communications Lecturer at Massey University Dr Jagadish Thaker. 

The three most common concerns the vaccine hesitant hold are: side effects, long-term effects and the approval process.

GP and immunology expert Dr Nikki Turner says serious side effects are rare and despite the relative newness of the vaccine, if there were long term consequences from taking it, we would already be seeing signs. 

"It's been used internationally in hundreds of millions of doses. There is extensive international safety data." 

"You would see early signs in these conditions - in immune conditions and in other conditions - now, if you were going to see anything in 20 years time. There are no signs and no signals, so we are very confident nothing is going to suddenly appear in 20 years time." 

And as for the perceived speed of the approval process, Turner says it was simply unprecedented levels of global coordination. 

"The only reason we could produce these faster than previous vaccines is the international community got together...this just shows you what can happen when the international science community gets its act together and produces amazing highly effective vaccines." 

For the portion of the vaccine hesitant who are uncertain about the vaccine and want reassurance on specific safety questions,

"If you want to reach them, we have to go to get to them through social media," advises Dr Thaker.

And if education and social media outreach aren't working, prizes might. The US State of Ohio ran a lottery prize draw, making five people millionaires. Dr Thaker says we may be following in the footsteps of America. 

"We will be able to get 60 to 70 percent vaccination rates immediately, very quickly, as soon as the vaccine is out but then it's going to stall. Then just like the US, we might have to incentivize people to get vaccinated." 

But there's another group - hardcore anti-vaxxers. About 8 percent of the population have already decided they won't get their vaccine and don't want to be convinced to get it. 

"They don't even trust social media information or mainstream channels or experts or scientists. The only source of information that they trust is family and friends," says Dr Thaker.

"So for the skeptics, we need more localized campaigns, local leaders, you know, talking about it with their communities, among their neighborhoods and such." 

Vaccine misinformation is spread by organised anti-vax groups, as well as some churches, including Destiny Church and City Impact Church. City Impact Church denies it is sharing misinformation.  

"There's a fear that somehow or rather a great global conspiracy is going to take away the rights and freedoms of Christians to practice their faith,” says Massey University Emeritus History Professor Peter Lineham.

“And so in one way or another, they want to object to the all powerful state, squeezing them into their mold.”

It's just a few churches, but they have big congregations.

But while thousands may have heard vaccine hesitant messages, it's an historic truth that not everyone does what they're told to in church. 

"Plenty of people in Destiny and in City Impact Church have been vaccinated. It's not that everybody thinks the same way," says Lineham.

In every pocket of society - even those hearing anti-vax messages from their leaders - there are people who can be reached and convinced.  

"What we know from, you know, decades of research is that I'm likely to do an action which is popular and easy for me and is respected by other members in my community," says Dr Thaker.

And according to Dr Turner, the benefits of vaccines are increasingly clear - on a personal level and a collective one. 

"Every day I go to work I'm hugely grateful I have that level of protection...the more people in NZ vaccinated the less this virus can spread through the community and will offer more protection to all of us." 

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