Clear, detailed communication key to getting Manitoba’s youngest vaccinated against COVID-19, experts say

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For one Winnipeg family, the news that their four-year-old twins can soon get vaccinated against COVID-19 prompted excitement.

“It’s been something we were waiting for,” mom Kaleigh Rosenblat said in her yard on Wednesday, hours after Manitoba announced it’s expanding vaccine eligibility to include kids under five.

Health Canada approved a two-dose Moderna vaccine for kids age six months to four years last week — which includes her sons, Reuben and Herschel. The dosage is roughly one-quarter the size of the dose given to adults.

Manitoba’s initial rollout to its youngest kids will be limited to Indigenous children and those with certain health conditions when appointments open on Monday. But eligibility will expand to include more kids in the age group once more vaccines are delivered to the province, Chief Provincial Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin said.

Rosenblat said her kids have already gotten COVID-19 and her oldest, Eloise, has already been vaccinated. But she’s glad her two youngest will hopefully have extra immunity against the illness before they head back to school in September.

“Even just one dose will help me feel a little bit more comfortable. We’ve been sending them to school anyways, but I think this just reduces the risk that they’ll have a bad reaction, or a severe reaction,” she said.

But that’s not necessarily how every parent is going to react.

And it’s important for public health communication to stay on top of answering questions families might still have about vaccinating their youngest kids against COVID-19, said Michelle Driedger, a professor in the department of community health sciences at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

“Parents aren’t cavalier when it comes to decisions for their children, right?” Driedger said.

“We have to be creative in our approaches because it’s not a one-size-fits-all [situation].”

She said generally speaking, the kind of information parents want to see when making decisions for their kids is more detailed than the level of information they’d accept in making a decision for themselves.

That means public health messaging needs to go beyond just telling parents how safe and effective the vaccines are. It also needs to explain things like how rare an adverse reaction to a vaccine might be, or how that compares to the risk of a child having a serious outcome after getting COVID-19, she said.

Michelle Driedger is a professor in the department of community health sciences at the U of M, focused on public and health risk communication, risk perception and knowledge translation under uncertain conditions. (Submitted by Michelle Driedger)

“Not as a scare tactic, but certainly as just something to help … contextualize the different risks that we face,” Driedger said.

She said identifying and breaking down any barriers parents still face in getting their kids vaccinated is also critical.

“If you make things easier to access, then uptake is greater,” Driedger said. 

“And if you help to address some of those barriers that people might face in order to access any kind of public health program, whether it be transportation or just feeling comfortable in a space, those are important considerations in public health delivery for things like vaccines.”

It’s common for parents to feel more concerned about health interventions like vaccines for the youngest children, “because they do feel so fragile,” said Devon Greyson, an assistant professor in the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Health in Vancouver.

“But in this case, I think some really good communication and listening and responding to parents’ concerns can really help allay those worries, because babies are so well-equipped to develop immunity through vaccination,” said Greyson, who’s studied vaccine hesitancy.

Communicating the potential risks of a COVID-19 infection in children — like multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children or long COVID — is also important to help give parents the full picture when they’re deciding whether to get their kids vaccinated, Greyson said.

“Even though the risk of serious harm to children from COVID is low, it’s not non-existent. And it’s certainly much higher than any risks of the vaccines that we have in Canada,” they said.

“So I would try to reassure them by looking at the rare but very serious risks that we can protect against with this vaccine.”

Establishing trust with parents is another key part of creating a space where they feel comfortable enough to ask the questions they have about the vaccine, Greyson said. 

And that can come in a number of ways, such as tapping family doctors, community leaders and others to help share credible information and build vaccine confidence, they said.

But maybe most important is to have open, honest conversations about the roots of their hesitancy around vaccination, Greyson said.

A person with short hair smiles slightly.
Devon Greyson is an assistant professor in the University of British Columbia’s School of Population and Health in Vancouver. (Submitted by Devon Greyson)

“For anyone who’s talking with parents who have doubts or concerns, [it’s important] to remember not to make parents feel embarrassed or alienated about that.… It’s normal and common to be concerned and want to protect your babies,” they said.

“We understand that people have questions. So just to be respectful and, you know, kind in answering parents’ questions I think is a great way to build relationships and build trust.”

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