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Vaccine hesitancy: RTÉ, Maynooth and what wasn’t said in reporting 

Recently, RTÉ News reported on research from Maynooth University regarding people it described as being vaccine ‘hesitant or resistant’. 

Although the reporter acknowledged that Ireland is “one of the most vaccinated nations in the world with close to 90% of the adult population now having got at least one jab against the coronavirus”, she also wrote that there were “still people who are vaccine hesitant if not completely vaccine resistant”.

She then quoted Dr Philip Hyland, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Psychology at Maynooth University, who told her that “the research showed that in Ireland, those who were hesitant about taking a Covid-19 vaccine were more likely to be female; a younger age (35-44); less altruistic; more likely to hold irrational beliefs (endorse religious and conspiratorial beliefs); lack trust in authority (lack trust in government, scientists, doctors/healthcare professionals); hold anti-migrant attitudes, and believe that one’s own social group is superior to other groups in society.”

We received an email from a Gript reader who thought that the description painted a negative view of anyone who had concerns about taking a vaccine. In particular, he wrote, the claim that those who were vaccine hesitant were characterised as holding “anti-migrant views” seemed to be at odds with research that had shown migrant groups were generally more reluctant to take vaccines.

He also wondered whether the inclusion of religious beliefs as “irrational” was a descriptor applied by RTÉ or Dr Hyland, or was it, in fact, taken from the research. He raised some interesting questions, so I wrote to the aforementioned Dr Philip Hyland and asked for the research referred to in the RTÉ News report, which he obligingly supplied.

The paper, published in Nature, was co-authored by a group of researchers and academics from Irish and British universities, and it sought to “identify the psychological processes that characterise and distinguish vaccine hesitant and resistant individuals from those who are receptive to vaccines” by looking at samples of the adult population of Ireland and the UK.

Prof Hyland explained to RTÉ that “vaccine hesitancy refers to the situation where people delay or consider not taking a vaccine and anti-vaccination (or vaccine resistance) is where people positively oppose vaccination.” He also clarified that those were hesitant might have fears allayed through information while those who were resistant might not.

So what did the research referred to in RTÉ News actually find?

For the Irish people sampled, it found that those who were vaccine hesitant were more likely to be female, aged between 35 and 44, and less likely to have received treatment for a mental health problem. The last finding didn’t make it into Dr Hyland’s summary to RTÉ.

It also found that those who were vaccine resistant – in other words who had the strongest opposition to vaccines – were also more likely to be aged 35–44 years,  residing in a city, to be of non-Irish ethnicity, to have voted for Sinn Féin, or an Independent political candidate in the previous general election, and to have an underlying health condition. Those with a lower income were more likely to refuse vaccines it also found.

What stands out about those findings in relation to what was reported on RTÉ is that the group most likely to be very opposed to vaccines were actually those described in the research paper as “non-Irish”. In fact, the research paper clarified that one of the leading variables that distinguished those who were vaccine hesitant to those who were more resistant was “non-Irish ethnicity”.

(The finding regarding an underlying health condition is also interesting. Perhaps people who are accustomed to being careful about their health may be wary of taking new medicines or vaccines.)

Looking at psychological indicators, the researchers lumped in strong and weak opposition to vaccines together and found that this group had “lower levels of trust in scientists, health care professionals and the state – and more negative attitudes toward migrants, combined with higher levels of “conspiratorial and religious beliefs.”

That’s also an interesting contrast with what was reported. The paper never described religion as being an “irrational” belief. That was a descriptor applied by Dr Hyland it seems.

It’s also notable that while migrants are more likely to be strongly opposed to vaccines, the combined group of those who are vaccine hesitant and resistant were found to have more negative views towards immigration – the tables show its not an enormous difference from those who are in favour of vaccines, but its still an interesting finding which might be closely examined.

So it seems that what RTÉ reported was not a full reflection of the findings of the study. Of course, they are not to blame for that since they relied on the quote given to them by Dr Hyland.

I wrote to Dr Hyland to ask him why he used the phrase “irrational beliefs” in relation to religion when that phrase does not appear in the study. I also asked him why the finding regarding those of “non-Irish ethnicity” being more likely to be opposed to vaccines was not included in his summary and why findings regarding voting patterns and mental health problems were also omitted.

To date, I haven’t received a reply.

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