Seven months into the UK’s vaccine rollout we’ve all heard the anti-vax conspiracy joke by now from a pal about how their Covid-19 vaccine has made them “5g-enabled” or capable of communicating directly with Bill Gates himself. But while 37.6m British adults are double jabbed so far, vaccine hesitancy among young people has been rising at an alarming rate.
NHS England data up to 22nd July shows only 66 per cent – or 5.6m – of 18 to 29-year-olds in England have had their first jab (to be fair, this age group were invited to get their vaccine very recently, in June), compared with 88 per cent of the whole adult population. At the same time, research from the Office for National Statistics found that between 7 and 10 per cent of adults under 30 have expressed hesitancy (very different from being anti-vaccination) about having the jab, compared to 4 per cent for the entire adult population. But what is driving this reluctance?
“I am young, healthy and I don’t need to feel comfortable going out,” says 26-year-old *Louise. “I don’t use any hormonal contraception or paracetamol, and I don’t like the thought of putting chemicals in my body.” Amir, 26, agrees. “It [Covid-19] doesn’t affect young people as much as others. I don’t want it [the vaccine] in my body.”
*Jane, 25, who responds via a burner email to protect her identity, feels the conversation around the vaccine has become toxic for those who are hesitant. “My choice on the subject is frequently misjudged as political and anti-scientific,” she explains. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m in the scientific community… but I don’t think it matters where I lie politically because I don’t see this as a political issue. I make medical decisions based on medical information.”
“We are aware that this topic doesn’t get the nuance and scientific debate it deserves. We shy away from the inevitable name-calling and confrontation,” she continues. “Just because some loud people are making the decision based on misinformation doesn’t mean everyone who refused the vaccine did so on bad data,” she says, adding that she based her own decision on a risk assessment she did from both her own research and her doctor’s advice against it.
But it’s not knowing what the long-term side effects are that are a cause for concern among many young people. “It’s not been around long enough for anyone to know what [these] could be,” Louise adds. “I don’t doubt the scientists or medical experts but if something hasn’t been around for years, how can we possibly know what it could do?”
The government’s recent move to make vaccine status a compulsory disclosure to access nightclubs and university lectures has contributed to 28-year-old *Melis’ anxiety. “I don’t like that it’s gone from feeling like a choice and something that is offered to everyone to something that feels forced,” she says. “I don’t doubt that it’s effective, but seeing some of the real-life (however rare) side effects is making it a difficult decision for me personally.”
A lack of governmental trust is another factor. “I don’t trust them,” Louise says. “I think the fact that they keep changing the rules for the vaccinated to me seems like they’re just scaremongering. The government isn’t following the rules they’re telling us to follow, so it causes distrust. I don’t take their word for anything.”
Clarissa Simas, a Vaccine Confidence Project research fellow at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, agrees that perception of risk is a big influence in terms of vaccine hesitancy among the young. “Younger people are not the most at-risk group as Covid-19 is usually deadlier for older people,” she says. “Meanwhile, any risks associated with Covid-19 vaccines have been hyper reported on in the media, making headlines across the globe (even the incredibly rare ones, such as blood clots).”
And it could be driving health anxiety. “When thinking of the risks and benefits, younger people might feel the advantages of vaccinating are not worth the risk of side effects,” she continues, “yet younger adults are at risk of unintended side effects, and their uptake is important to control overall transmission.” This echoes the findings of a huge Lancet study of more than 1 million people, which found that the likelihood of developing a blood clot from the Covid-19 virus itself is higher than the risk of it happening after having either the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccines.
Simas urges those who are concerned about a loved one who may be feeling hesitant to approach with empathy. “It is important to not scapegoat or stigmatise young people who have already sacrificed so much to help contain the spread of the virus,” she says. “First, listen to concerns with empathy. Don’t be judgemental. Try to understand what is triggering their anxiety about vaccination.”
When we are anxious, we create extreme worst-case scenarios in our head that are not factual. “Remember that every medicine we take has a risk attached,” Simas says. “It just so happens that the risks associated with Covid-19 are currently hyper publicised and this might be affecting risk perception.” She says it’s also important to remember that we take a vaccine not just for ourselves, but for our family, community and, friends. “Vaccines only work if we make a collective pact to help each other. Even if you are part of a group at lower risk of a disease, taking a vaccine means you are directly contributing to protect those who are really vulnerable.”
For anyone who may be feeling hesitant themselves, Simas advises to always use trustworthy official sources such as the NHS, the CDC and the World Health Organization when looking for information about vaccines. “Do not take at face value free-floating information (and misinformation) on social media.”
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity
The World Health Organization says you can protect yourself by washing your hands, covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing (ideally with a tissue), avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and don’t get too close to people who are coughing, sneezing or with a fever.