The COVID pandemic has impacted many lives, but has had a significantly negative effect on historically marginalized groups, especially those from underrepresented ethnic and racial groups. These same groups have been among those most likely to express hesitancy and skepticism towards vaccinations against COVID-19. Now researchers have found that parents who have unvaccinated children can be encouraged to change their minds by receiving specific messages.
The researchers, from Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, used data from The Voices of Child Health in Chicago Panel Survey – a tri-annual longitudinal survey that aims to understand the health of youths and families in Chicago. The survey related to the time between October and November 2021, when the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization (EUA), a mechanism that allows them to strengthen the nation’s public health measures, for COVID-19 vaccines for children aged 5-11 was still fresh, and its EUA for vaccines in children under 5 years had not occurred.
The study pinpointed parents who responded to the survey who had at least one child who had not been vaccinated. These parents were randomly given one of four distinct messages about COVID vaccines to read. These messages, presented as hypothetical scenarios, were identified as “trusted parents”, “safe and tested”, “well-tolerated” and “control”. The team then studied the responses of 898 parents.
The researchers found that the following message was the most effective at changing parent’s intentions to vaccinate their children:
You hear from other parents you trust that they have vaccinated their children against COVID-19. Some of them say that they weren’t sure at first about whether the vaccine is safe for kids. But they ended up deciding that it was the best way to fight COVID-19, and the vaccination went fine. They want to keep their kids protected.
This message, the “trusted parents” message, was most likely to encourage unvaccinated parents and Black parents, who have been more hesitant towards vaccinations. They also found that parents who read an alternative message where their child’s healthcare provider explained that the vaccine was safe and rigorously tested for children were significantly more likely to vaccinate their child if it was paired with the “trusted parent” message.
Most interestingly, it seems any racial or ethnic differences in intentions to vaccinate their children ceased to be detectable after they read both the “trusted parents” and “safe and tested” messages. This suggests that such messages are especially effective at encouraging behavior and attitude changes in unvaccinated parents and Black parents.
“In our study overall, Black parents were least likely to intend to vaccinate their children against COVID-19”, lead author Marie Heffernan, Assistant Professor at Mary Ann & J. Milburn Smith Child Health Outcomes, Research, and Evaluation Center at Lurie Children’s and the Department of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a statement.
“Our findings that the ‘trusted parents’ and ‘safe and tested’ message types increased Black parents’ intentions to vaccinate their children could inform vaccination campaigns and hopefully help to effectively reach these families.”
In contrast to these effective messages, the researchers also found that one type of message presented in a hypothetical scenario – that the vaccine was “well-tolerated” with few side effects, which was explained by the child’s doctor or nurse – was not effective. For those who received this message, the intention to vaccinate their children did not differ significantly from the control group, who only received information about the expected timeline for authorizing the vaccines for children.
“Our study helps clarify how different types of messages influence parents’ intentions to vaccinate their children against COVID-19. This is an urgent need because some methods to encourage vaccination, such as correcting myths about vaccines, have been shown to be counterproductive and inadvertently discourage vaccination,” added senior author Dr Matthew M. Davis.
“In addition to aiding public health campaigns, our findings may help guide clinicians’ discussions with vaccine-hesitant families. Given the importance of effective vaccination among children in controlling future waves of COVID-19 illness, such messages may be some of the most important communications that pediatricians are currently providing.”
The study is published in Pediatrics.