Hannah McGowan describes her 19-year-old self as an anti-vaxxer. Years on, having changed her mind, she’s using her experience to urge others to “fall in love with science” and trust it to make an informed and fact-based decision about Covid-19 vaccines.
“If I was in the UK or the US where [Covid-19] is rife, I would have definitely have already signed up for it,” McGowan told 1 NEWS.
Covid-19 mRNA vaccines work by training the body’s immune system to recognise the virus by telling cells to create a harmless “spike protein”, similar to the one found on the surface of the virus that causes Covid-19. It doesn’t alter a person’s DNA while it does so.
“There are some studies that our immune response may not be as strong because of the immunosuppressant medications we’re on. But I would rather take that risk than get Covid because the long-term effects of that can be really debilitating if you do survive,” McGowan said.
Thankfully, she said, New Zealand was in a position where it had low Covid-19 case numbers that it could wait and see how immunisation was going overseas.
After being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and not knowing where else to turn for answers, McGowan incorrectly placed the blame on vaccination after reading about a small, and later debunked, study that suggested there was a link between the MMR vaccine and Crohn's.
“Then the next thing you know I’m going down this rabbit hole on the whole anti-vaxx thing. When you’ve got an incurable condition that medical science struggles to treat and can’t cure, you kind of look for other solutions.
“I thought it made sense. But, actually, that study was disproved really quickly and I didn’t catch up on that.”
McGowan then became active on anti-vaccination Facebook groups. Out of fear, she refused to get her children vaccinated and encouraged others to do the same. Her sons didn’t get immunised until after she realised she had been wrong.
“I really have everyone who does vaccinate to thank. If people weren’t vaccinating to the point where we’ve got pretty good herd immunity, my children could have been really unwell.”
While in those groups, McGowan said she met others who had negative experiences with the health system and conventional medicine. She then tried a new medicine for Crohn's, which ended up working well.
“That started getting me back on good terms with ‘regular’ traditional medicine and vaccinations. I started looking into it a bit further and realised I’d been pretty misinformed and my understanding of science wasn’t as good as I thought it was,” she said.
McGowan also befriended a public health professional who was “horrified” her children weren’t immunised. It opened her up to a different perspective, and she began to do more of her own reading — this time of peer-reviewed research.
“Meeting someone outside of my circle of the anti-vaxxer world was probably the trigger because I had a lot of respect for her. I knew she wouldn’t have any ulterior motives.”
It was hard at first to admit she was wrong, and a lot of people in that situation would also find taking that step difficult, she said.
“That takes some effort, and the whole cognitive dissonance factor is pretty strong.”
So, for people who may be hesitant about vaccines, “objective facts delivered in a kind way is probably the best way to go about it”, McGowan said.
“If you try to shame someone … that’s going to create more division. We have to create conversations where we have common ground and kindly introduce the proper information.”
Instead of labelling someone as an “idiot”, McGowan said it was important to understand fear was usually at the heart of people’s hesitancy about vaccines. For example, for her, it was her fear that her children would be harmed.
From there, those fears could be addressed, she said.
McGowan also wanted to see more funding and more teaching of science.
“We need to start trusting science. We need to fall in love with science,” she said.
“That’s something that I think would really help change the hesitancy because it really is a lack of information and a lack of trust in the scientific community … that for me was the link from fear to confidence.”
‘You acknowledge, you empathise, you ask questions and be curious’
A leading global authority on people’s attitudes towards vaccination echoed McGowan’s call to acknowledge the questions people had when it came to the Covid-19 vaccine, instead of jumping to conclusions and labelling people.
University of Sydney social scientist and vaccination expert Professor Julie Leask said she tended to avoid calling people an “anti-vaxxer” in most cases because it was a “very loaded term”.
“We tend to reserve the anti-vaxxer label for the activists, the online keyboard warriors, who are trying to undermine vaccination programmes in a campaign,” she said.
“The reason why the language is important here is because when a large swathes of the population are planning to not vaccinate, or are very hesitant, it's just so important to treat them and their concerns with respect.”
She advised people who had friends or family who were hesitant to first think about what the person was like.
“If this person is against vaccines in general, in that case, you might be better off either not going there or just affirming vaccination and moving on.
“If they're showing that they're unsure about the Covid-19 vaccine, they think it developed too quickly, they want to know more about the long-term side effects. They don't want to feel like so-called ‘guinea pigs’, then that's when it's important [to communicate].”
For people who were strong advocates of vaccination, it is easy to want to jump in and correct wrong thinking, Leask said.
Instead, she urged people to hear them out and “validate them as a person who’s trying to be careful with their health”.
“And then think through with them about what the benefits of vaccinating might be.”
For example, vaccines might mean someone would be more free to travel or visit elderly relatives, Leask said. This would help to “amplify” a motivation that’s already there.
“You pick your battles. You acknowledge, you empathise, you ask questions and be curious. You try to find common ground about what might make them want to vaccinate and focus on that.
“Ask them what their nurse or doctor thinks, because that can be quite influential. Ask them what they do about other vaccines. If they have a yearly flu vaccine, what makes this one different for them?
“Once you've built that rapport, you've gotten a much, much better place to encourage them,” she said.
But Leask urged caution.
“You've got to be really careful with trying to be too persuasive … what could end up happening with someone who's quite resistant, is you can get stuck in this back and forth with the evidence and you don't really go anywhere.
“Sometimes those people can become more entrenched in their views, and we call this the ‘worldview backfire effect’.
“In those cases, it's important to take a little moment to think about what you want to achieve and to let go of this need to reflexively right wrong things or guilt them into vaccinating.”
She said political leaders also had a role to play. She urged them to communicate proactively about struggles they faced with the pandemic, and to do so in an honest way that showed empathy.
Leask assured Covid-19 vaccines were safe and met strict safety standards.
“I'm very confident in the vaccines and I'll be getting the vaccine when it's offered to me.”