OPINION
21/01/2021 14:36 GMT

As A Muslim Researcher, I Understand BAME Vaccine Hesitancy

We should not sneer or belittle those whose lived experience has given them reason to question being vaccinated, writes Dr Shamaila Anwar.

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doctor in gloves holding syringe and making injection to senior patient in medical mask

“If I’m going to die from Covid-19, that is God’s will.” That’s a sentiment I hear a lot among my community of Muslim Pakistanis in West Yorkshire. 

When everyone’s fate depends on not just the existence of vaccines to end the pandemic, but an actual will to take it, this kind of sentiment presents a real problem.

There is clear evidence that Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups have higher rates of infection, serious disease, and deaths from Covid-19. And yet, there is a reluctance from these communities to be vaccinated.

In recent days, GPs have reported that in Newham, London, and other areas with high BAME populations, health officials are seeing a poor uptake of the vaccine.

We also know that there is a reluctance from these communities to volunteer to take part in vaccine trials, making up just under 6% of the total.

A recent study by the Royal Society of Public Health found that 57% of people from BAME groups were likely to accept a Covid-19 vaccine compared to 79% of white respondents.

So, as cases continue to surge, there is a disconnect between the communities most at risk of Covid-19, and the actual demographic of participants being vaccinated. In the face of such reluctance, how do we convince these communities?  

Engaging with these communities has highlighted to me an urgent need for targeted information about vaccines to address the different cultural beliefs and concerns people hold.

In March, when the whole of the country went into the first lockdown, my day job at the NIHR switched overnight to supporting the UK’s research response to the pandemic.

We developed a short drama series called COVID and Me based on lived experience of Covid-19 to raise public awareness of the importance of vaccine research, making people feel they can be part of the solution to end the pandemic.   

The dramas helped us address concerns, beliefs and misinformation with honest and accurate responses in a culturally relevant way, such as Asif’s experience challenging vaccine myths in his family Whastapp group.

We should not sneer or belittle those whose experience up to this point have given them multiple reasons to question being vaccinated.

Engaging with these communities has highlighted to me an urgent need for targeted information about vaccines to address the different cultural beliefs and concerns people hold.

This includes providing more information about safety and effectiveness of vaccines and addressing long standing mistrust triggered by the historical poor treatment of ethnic minority people, such as in the scandal of the US Tuskegee study, which ran for 40 years from 1932. 

Advisers from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) have also raised concerns over Covid vaccine uptake among BAME communities, as research showed up to 72% of Black people said they were unlikely to have the jab.

Within the Nigerian community there is still a clear memory of a 1996 anti-meningitis drug trial that took place in Nigeria, with questionable parental consent procedures showing little regard to ethics or even simple respect for human life. Eleven children died and many were left disabled. 

Within these community concerns, the sway of the anti-vax movement cannot be understated. Anti-vaxxers capitalise on these examples of bad practice to feed an existing suspicion that BAME groups will be less favourably treated, or even used as guinea pigs in vaccine trials. 

Within my own community, concerns and beliefs about the vaccines range from a lack of understanding due to language barriers (a key consideration in South Asian communities) to more spiritual concerns, such as how they reconcile being part of a clinical trial with their faith. 

The resistance we are seeing now to the Covid-19 vaccination is also nothing new. During the 1980s and 1990s, my parents wouldn’t even have the flu jab, convinced it would affect their ability to build up natural immunity. Over time this has shifted, and now, especially with messages about needing to do our bit to protect the NHS, my parents are first in the queue. Religious leaders in areas such as Bradford also lead by example, encouraging everyone to follow the rules and rolling up their sleeves for the vaccine. 

For me, education and engagement is key to unlocking the fears communities have about vaccinations. We should not sneer or belittle those whose experience up to this point have given them multiple reasons to question being vaccinated, or take part in research. It is about taking people on a journey to make informed decisions. 

This is partly why I’ve joined Team Halo – a group of more than 30 volunteer scientists from around the world who have taken to TikTok and other social media platforms to educate and answer concerns from people about the COVID-19 vaccines with factual, scientific answers. The videos have been seen over 38 million times. My videos answer common concerns in my community, like whether the vaccine is Halal (it is).

I know these videos will resonate with younger members of my community who will then talk to their parents and grandparents around the dinner table. What we need more than ever is honest debate, based on scientific evidence, not debate spurred by vaccine lies circulating the internet.

 Dr Shamaila Anwar is a member of Team Halo and a senior analyst at the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). She is currently project managing the NIHR ‘COVID and Me’ programme to address inclusivity in vaccine research and reaching underserved communities.