How to Talk About Vaccine Ingredients to Patients to Instill Confidence

How to Talk About Vaccine Ingredients to Patients to Instill Confidence

Vaccine hesitancy, the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate oneself or one’s children, remains a significant public health hurdle. One contributing factor is concern about vaccine ingredients. While some ingredients may sound unfamiliar, understanding their purpose and rigorous safety testing can alleviate anxieties. Here’s how to approach these conversations effectively.

Acknowledge and Validate Concerns

People hesitant about vaccines often have genuine worries. Dismissing their concerns can be counterproductive. Instead, acknowledge their feelings and validate their desire to make informed decisions.

“There is a lot of worry [from patients] about the mRNA [COVID-19] vaccine and the genetics of that getting into pregnant women,” Joanna Katzman, MD, a neurologist Director of Project ECHO’s Vaccine Confidence program, tells BDOPro. “That’s a worry patients have and one of the reasons why it’s a barrier to becoming vaccinated. So we talk about how that does not get into the nucleus of the cell, and we show a lot of visuals and how it’s incredibly safe.”

Focus on Benefits

Vaccines are one of the most effective tools in preventing infectious diseases. Start by highlighting this lifesaving benefit. Then, address ingredients in a clear, concise way. Explain that each vaccine contains specific components that work together to train the immune system. Briefly mention key ingredients – antigens (the weakened or inactive virus or bacteria that trigger the immune response), adjuvants (to strengthen the immune response), and stabilizers (to preserve the vaccine during storage and transport).

“The first thing I like to remind doctors is that breaking the information down to more lay terms is really important for people,” says Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett-Helaire, a lead scientist behind the COVID-19 vaccine. For example, she explains, “lipid, that term is just the really scientific way of saying, like, a fatty compound or a fat.” 

Using plain language can demystify vaccine ingredients that may sound concerning on the surface. “People then start to appreciate the simplicity of ingredients, rather than being overwhelmed by the scientific terms,” Dr. Corbett-Helaire notes.

Address Specific Ingredient Concerns

Some common concerns include:

  • Preservatives: Explain that preservatives like thimerosal, though once used, are no longer routinely included in most childhood vaccines due to public concerns, despite no evidence of harm at recommended levels
  • Aluminum: Aluminum salts are used as adjuvants. Reassure them that the amount used is tiny and safe, with extensive research showing no link to autism or other developmental problems
  • Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde is used in trace amounts to inactivate viruses. It’s also present in small amounts in many fruits and vegetables.

Highlight Rigorous Testing

Emphasize the extensive safety testing vaccines undergo before being licensed. Clinical trials involve thousands of participants, with long-term monitoring for side effects.

Direct to Trusted Sources

People often rely on various online information, particularly on social media, some of which can be inaccurate. Doctors should guide patients to trusted sources of vaccine information. “The best way to combat misinformation is slowly teaching our populations, our patients, how to best go about finding the right information,” explains Dr. Corbett-Helaire. Direct them to reputable sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), or the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). These organizations have science-based information on vaccine ingredients and safety.

Dr. Corbett-Helaire advises doctors to remind patients that “vaccine ingredients are public information, and that information can be found on either the CDC or the FDA’s website.” By empowering patients to look up this data themselves, it “starts to teach people that they do have a lot more at their fingertips than they probably would have previously thought.”

By fostering trust and providing accurate information, we can navigate the ingredients conversation and encourage vaccine acceptance, ultimately protecting individuals and communities from preventable diseases.

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