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COVID vaccines for kids are coming – and so is more misinformation

Closeup of shoulder of a vaccinated young Asian girl with adhesive bandage in thumbs up.

News Brief

It’s one thing for adults to make COVID-19 vaccine decisions for themselves. But making decisions for young children can be scarier, more complicated and more emotional.

Experts expect another wave of misinformation from anti-vaccine activists and conspiracy theorists with the FDA's approval – and a CDC panel's Tuesday endorsement – of Pfizer's vaccine for kids 5 through 11 years old. That could include misleading and graphic articles and videos claiming severe side effects intended to sow doubt.

“There will be a lot of misinformation, right? There will be myths, there will be misinterpretation of facts. We should anticipate that,” said Vish Viswanath, a professor of health communications at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Viswanath said parents shouldn’t trust social media, but instead turn to someone knowledgeable and trustworthy, like their own family physician.

“I would recommend they go there and seek the help of the healthcare provider, their primary care provider, who can help them figure out the science behind this,” he said.

Viswanath said most people still trust these local figures, and parents shouldn’t feel the burden to figure out all this new research on their own. There are still hurdles to accessing and understanding a lot of the newest research coming out. This is especially true when the internet can confirm just about any fear someone might have, whether it’s merited or not.

“Every parent should definitely ask questions, right? That is reasonable. That is rational,” he said. “But I would say the question should be asked of people you trust.”

Misinformation about vaccines isn’t new, of course – “starting off with that (false) link with autism many, many years ago, for which we’re still paying the price,” Viswanath said.

But even when that rumor started to gain traction, the vast majority of people still immunized their children from things like measles and mumps.

“What is different about COVID-19 vaccines, unlike (other) childhood vaccines, is the hyper-partisan nature of the foundation for the myths,” he said.

That is, myths about side effects and perceived malevolent intentions behind the vaccines.

It’s also challenging that the science, like the virus itself, is still evolving, Viswanath said. While public health organizations are trying to be more transparent, the process of getting a vaccine a federal emergency use authorization is complicated, and the dense nature of that process can be exploited.

Viswanath is concerned that the misinformation driving some of the COVID-19 vaccine hesitation could lead to hesitation about other vaccines, but hopes that concern is unwarranted.

Viswanath recently co-wrote a pieceabout how to communicate with parents about COVID-19 vaccines for the National Academy of Sciences.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Nevada Public Radio, Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Madelyn Beck was Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau.

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