Public might refuse pandemic vaccine over safety concerns

Healthcare workers and parents might refuse to get immunized or vaccinate their children against a pandemic virus if they believe the risks of a novel vaccine outweigh the benefits, according to research published in Emerging Health Threats Journal.

As the influenza A (H1N1) pandemic threatens to pick up speed as winter approaches in the northern hemisphere, pharmaceutical companies are racing to produce a vaccine against the novel ‘swine flu’ virus. The first batches of vaccine could be used to protect vulnerable populations and to ensure the pandemic does not compromise health care availability. But immunization 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 compromise this wider protective effect, say researchers.

The researchers, Natalie Henrich of the University of British Columbia and Bev Holmes at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada, conducted eleven focus groups in Vancouver before the onset of the current pandemic and asked participants how willing they would be to accept a new vaccine in the event of a pandemic.

Parents known to favour ‘alternative medicine’ were particularly opposed to vaccination – but even healthcare workers would be reluctant to get vaccinated against an illness perceived as mild. ’Participants were very concerned that in a pandemic, a vaccine would be brought to market without sufficient testing for safety,’ say the researchers.

Many believed that instead, they could protect themselves against infection through personal control measures such as hand washing, social distancing or even a good diet. Although these measures are important, say Henrich and Holmes, they are not sufficient to prevent illness. They stress that this needs to be made clear to the public to ensure the vaccination campaign is successful.

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% of the population use alternative therapies and 10% receive services from alternative health care providers,’ write the authors. ’The influence on their patients can mean the difference between whether or not herd immunity is achieved.’


Henrich, N. and Holmes, B.J. (2009) The public’s acceptance of novel vaccines during a pandemic: a focus group study and its application to influenza H1N1. Emerging Health Threats Journal 2, e8

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