Meet the Yorkshire campaigners tackling the complex reasons behind Covid vaccine hesitancy in BAME communities

By Chris Burn

Yorkshire campaigners are working to address Covid vaccine hesitancy among black, Asian and minority ethnic groups. Chris Burn reports.

When the head of NHS England, Sir Simon Stevens, appeared alongside Boris Johnson at a Downing Street press conference last week, he made a startling claim that there is a “pandemic of disinformation and the deliberate sowing of mistrust” surrounding the Covid vaccine rollout.

He made the assertion after earlier telling the briefing: “There is a real concern about the hesitancy on the part of some black and South Asian communities to accept the vaccine offer they are receiving, either at work if they are a health or social care worker, or as a member of the public.”

While Sir Simon said huge efforts were under way to overcome that and “meaningful progress” was now being made, his comments came in the wake of other concerning data – including Office for National Statistics research which found less than half (49 per cent) of Black or Black British adults reporting that they were likely to have the vaccine compared to 85 per cent of those from white backgrounds and 80 per cent of those of mixed ethnicity.

That followed a separate poll conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health which suggested that only 57 per cent of respondents from minority ethnic groups were likely to accept a Covid vaccine, compared to 79 per cent of white respondents.

Considerable efforts are being made in Yorkshire to address these issues, but those on the frontline say the reasons behind any reluctance are altogether more complex than just being down to online disinformation.

Heather Nelson, from the Leeds-based Black Health Initiative and a board member of the NHS Race and Health Observatory, has been involved in putting on local and national webinars allowing people to put their concerns to medical experts and hear the facts surrounding the rollout.

She says there needs to be a better understanding of exactly why many people are hesitant to get a jab. “For me, we need to change the narrative,” she says. “We are constantly putting blame onto South Asian and Black communities for low uptake of vaccinations. What the NHS needs to look at is the mistrust these communities have had for decades. That has never been worked on in the past. What Covid has done is expose the mistrust. What needs to happen and what has started to happen is to give information to these communities so they can make an informed choice.

“It is not about pressurising them, it is about giving them the facts so they can make their own informed choices. You can set up vaccination centres in community centres and places of worship but if you don’t do the ground- work first, people won’t come through the door.”

Nelson cites historical scandals such as the infamous Tuskegee Study which began in 1930s America and lasted for 40 years until it was uncovered. Hundreds of African-American men were told they were getting free medical care for ‘bad blood’ but instead were left with deliberately untreated syphilis so researchers could study how the disease progressed. This continued even after it was known that penicillin could cure the disease and by the time the study was exposed in 1972, 28 men had died of syphilis, and 100 others were dead of related complications, while dozens of their wives were infected.

She says another key issue is frequently-experienced racial health disparities in this country.

“Black women are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer at a younger age but mammograms are still set for the age of 50,” she explains. “It is missing the black women who should be able to get them. With prostate cancer, black men are likely to get it from 40 and white men from 60-plus. When black men were asking to get tested, they were being told by GPs, you are too young. You could go on about the health disparities that have bred the mistrust. That in itself accounts for some of the reluctance to vaccinations.”

Those views are shared by the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies. In a paper published in January on vaccine uptake, SAGE said: “Trust is particularly important for black communities that have low trust in healthcare organisations and research findings due to historical issues of unethical healthcare research.

“Trust is also undermined by structural and institutional racism and discrimination. Minority ethnic groups have historically been a under-represented within health research, including vaccines trials, which can influence trust in a particular vaccine being perceived as appropriate and safe, and concerns that immunisation research is not ethnically heterogenous.”

As part of Nelson’s attempts to redress the balance, the Black Health Initiative arranged a webinar earlier this month involving local GPs which was attended by 100 people on Zoom and had 75 more wanting to participate.

“We had credible voices giving factual information and responding to the misinformation that is already out there.

“Many from the black communities are not saying ‘No’, they are saying ‘No, we want more information’ and rightfully so. Since we had our webinar, we know of two people who have gone for Covid vaccines. That is two more than would have done otherwise. They went away with more information which was food for thought. It is an ongoing process. We hope they talk to family and friends and it is a ripple effect.”

She also participated in a national webinar organised by the NHS Race and Observatory Board, which had almost 900 people in attendance.

At that event, her fellow board member and chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing Dame Donna Kinnair, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing, said anti-vaxxers had been “so quick” to play on fears and suspicions in spreading myths around the vaccines and that it is up to clinical leaders to address them.

She said: “Some of the ones that I’ve seen are actually doctors coming out and saying that they’ve got to protect us from taking this vaccine, from this huge experiment.

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