Vaccine hesitancy experts say appeals from those who have experienced the consequences of being unvaccinated could help counter frightening misinformation spread by anti-vaccine groups.
Brenda Lee Legault wasn’t ready to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I was hesitant,” Legault, 61, said. She and her husband decided they wanted to wait to see what happened as more people got the shot — but they were also alarmed by what they saw online.
“You’re hearing a lot of things on media and, you know, Facebook and stuff and you know, you’re seeing videos on YouTube and it’s kind of scary. So we were really unsure,” she said.
Legault, who owns a catering business with her husband in Cornwall, Ont., fell critically ill with COVID-19 in August. She was hospitalized for a month, including 24 days in the ICU.
The 10th day, she said, was terrifying.
“I wrote a big long letter to my son and I thought I was going to die that day,” she said. “I was really sorry that I wasn’t vaccinated.”
Legault survived. She now suffers from severe lung damage and relies on an oxygen tube to breathe. She said she’s just grateful to be alive.
“If I was to start all over again, I would have gotten vaccinated from the beginning,” Legault said, who now believes the scary images she saw online claiming to be life-changing post-vaccine reactions could be misinformation.
Legault is one of several Canadians who have started publicly sharing regrets — either that they didn’t get vaccinated themselves, or lost an unvaccinated loved one to COVID-19. They hope that by sharing their experiences, they can help convince other people who are hesitant to get their shot.
The question is, will it work?
It depends on what’s driving each person’s reluctance, experts say.
WATCH | Sharing personal stories to help combat vaccine hesitancy:
Sharing COVID-19 experiences to help combat vaccine hesitancy
Personal stories about COVID-19, including those of vaccine regret, could be a tool in helping some people overcome their vaccine hesitancy. 2:27
“We know that people are hesitant about vaccines for a variety of reasons,” said Maya Goldenberg, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Guelph and author of Vaccine Hesitancy: Public Trust, Expertise, and the War on Science.
Helping people overcome vaccine hesitancy requires different strategies, depending on the concern. For some Indigenous, Black and other people of colour, the reasons are complex and historically grounded in mistreatment by governments and health-care systems and need to be addressed with culturally sensitive approaches, Goldenberg said.
But many people who are hesitant have fallen prey to frightening misinformation distributed by anti-vaccine groups. For them, hearing first-hand stories such as Legault’s may reach them at an emotional level and drive home the consequences of remaining unvaccinated, Goldenberg said.
“This might be the counter that they need to say, ‘well, the other version is scary, too,'” she said. “That might actually give them the balance that they need to do a proper assessment of the risks involved.”
‘We’re left with the truly vaccine hesitant’
With more than 80 percent of eligible Canadians now vaccinated, personal stories could be a much-needed way to reach some of the remaining people who haven’t been convinced by public health information or science-based appeals, said Dr. Cora Constantinescu, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist with the Vaccine Hesitancy Clinic at Alberta Children’s Hospital.
“Now we’re left with the truly vaccine-hesitant,” Constantinescu said. “Just correcting misinformation is never going to be enough.”
“This is why I think anecdotes are an important way of still communicating the science, the severity of the disease and then the power of immunization,” she said. “There’s the face to that story.”
But vaccine hesitancy falls on a spectrum, experts say, and those with the most deeply entrenched anti-vaccine views are unlikely to be moved by the regrets of other unvaccinated people.
“For the vaccine-hesitant in sort of the intermediate zone, I think these messages are important. I think they are compelling,” said Dr. Kumanan Wilson, an internal medicine specialist at the Ottawa Hospital.
“But I think for the diehard anti-vaxxers, it likely is not going to have any impact,” said Wilson, who is also the CEO of CANImmunize, a technology company that provides digital support to immunization programs across the country.
For some people, stories about other people’s painful experiences could backfire, said Goldenberg.
“There’s … some evidence from social science research that scary stories can actually make people get defensive and dig in their heels a little bit,” said Goldenberg.
Past research into vaccine hesitancy around childhood immunizations, she said, showed that stories of children dying from vaccine-preventable diseases made some parents say they needed to get the shot to protect their children.
“[But] others will say, ‘Well, that can’t be true,’ and it’ll make them even more steadfastly against vaccination,” Goldenberg said.
Respond with ‘compassion,’ doctor urges
People who are pro-vaccine should take care with how they react to news of the unvaccinated getting COVID-19 in their online comments or on social media, Wilson said.
He stressed that avoiding judgment is critical.
“If we come across as callous and, you know, almost ‘that serves you right,’ it could push those [who are] vaccine-hesitant to be anti-vaccine. It could make them distrust us,” Wilson said.
But if stories of unvaccinated regret are “handled well and with compassion, this type of messaging is powerful,” he said.
Brenda Lee Legault is gratified that because of her ordeal, some of her relatives decided to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
But she wants to get her message out more widely, hoping to save others who still haven’t been immunized from becoming critically ill.
“I encourage everybody out there that’s on the fence about this — go get vaccinated. It’s not worth risking your life.”