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Fears that public may refuse H1N1 vaccine

Parents and healthcare workers may refuse immunisation because they believe the risks of a novel vaccine outweigh the benefits

As pharmaceutical companies race to produce a vaccine against the H1N1 or  'swine flu' virus, the findings of a study published in Emerging Health Threats Journal, reveal that parents and healthcare workers may refuse to get immunised or vaccinate their children against a pandemic virus because they believe the risks of a novel vaccine outweigh the benefits.

Researchers, Natalie Henrich of the University of British Columbia and Bev Holmes at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada, conducted 11 focus groups in Vancouver in 2006 and 2007, before the onset of the current H1N1 pandemic. Participants were asked how willing they would be to accept a new vaccine in the event of a pandemic.

 According to the study, "acceptance of novel vaccines during health crises is influenced by perceptions of a range of risks, including risk of infection, risk of becoming severely ill or dying if infected, and risk of serious side- and long-term effects of the vaccine. Participants were hesitant to use the novel vaccines because of a low perception of risk of infection early in a pandemic, coupled with the many uncertainties that surround new vaccines and the emerging infectious disease and concern that unsafe pharmaceuticals may be rushed to market during the health crisis."

Parents known to favour 'alternative medicine' were particularly opposed to vaccination, however, even healthcare workers were reluctant to get vaccinated against an illness perceived to be mild.

The researchers believe that understanding adults' assessment of the risks related to, and willingness to use, novel vaccines during a pandemic will help officials promote disease-control measures better and improve public acceptance and the likely uptake of an H1N1 vaccine. Immunisation in communities is most effective when enough people are vaccinated to confer 'herd immunity' on the rest of the population. Members of the public who refuse the jab for themselves or their children could thus compromise this wider protective effect, the researchers say.

Many of the focus group respondents believe that instead of taking the vaccine, they could protect themselves against infection through personal control measures such as hand washing, social distancing and by following a good diet. Although these measures are important, say Henrich and Holmes, they are not sufficient to prevent illness. This needs to be made clear to the public to ensure the vaccination campaign is successful, they stress.

It is particularly important to communicate with alternative health professionals about the benefits and risks of vaccination. "In the United States, for example, approximately 57 per cent of the population use alternative therapies and 10 per cent receive services from alternative healthcare providers," write the authors. "The influence on their patients can mean the difference between whether or not herd immunity is achieved."

24th August 2009


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