The biggest issue is that people are scared because they do not have enough knowledge to understand how vaccines work. That is mostly the source of distrust in the medical field, says Chiara Močnik Pegan from the European Medical Students’ Association.
Martyna Kompała, EURACTIV.pl: Welcome to the European Podcast. In this episode, we will find out what the European Medical Students Association is. What’s more, we will discuss the European immunization program and answer the question – how to encourage the people who hesitate to get vaccinated?
My guest is Ms. Chiara Močnik Pegan, an EMSA College Vaccination Program Coordinator.
Could you tell us what European Medical Students Association does specifically?
Chiara Močnik Pegan: The European Medical Students Association is for medical students who want more. Basically, it’s a non-profit, non-governmental organization. It joins medical students from all over Europe and it really offers you to achieve more and to put your talent to good use. It’s like a platform for a high level of advocacy for various projects, training, workshops, and international meetings, and obviously, for medical students it is extremely important as well to meet new people from different countries, to meet people from different health systems. It definitely is an experience for our future work. EMSA is based on a couple of pillars, like medical education, medical ethics, human rights, health policy, public health, medical science, and European integration and culture. I belong to the public health pillar.
Martyna Kompała: What is your role as Coalition for Vaccination Program Coordinator?
Chiara Močnik Pegan: Basically, I am part of the public health pillar. We’re the public health team and we try to tackle various public health issues. I personally am involved in the vaccine hesitancy field and that is because I am involved in the coalition for the vaccination. Coalition for vaccination basically brings together European associations of various health professionals and relevant students coalitions and also, and the goal for everybody is to tackle vaccine hesitancy. I am the person who represents the EMS in the coalition for vaccination and basically, I am representing the opinion of the medical students – that’s the main point.
Martyna Kompała: What do you think, what is the attitude of young people to the European immunization program?
Chiara Močnik Pegan: I think we can’t make this like a general opinion because young people and students are such a big group of people, with so many diverse opinions and so it’s difficult to just say – “Okay, this is the opinion of everybody”. I am also for sure biased because my circle of people is mostly medical students and doctors. We have mostly positive feelings towards vaccinations and vaccines in general. I also can’t represent the opinion of students from different courses and from different countries. But what I’d like to say and hope for is that the trend of how people feel toward vaccines is turning in a positive direction. I think that even though the vaccine hesitancy was present even before corona, I think it has definitely brought it more to light. In that way, it was also a new opportunity, because young people started to show more interest in vaccines in general, which gives you a bigger opportunity to share your opinion and your knowledge, and they would actually be interested in it. I think the trend is positive, they are open. The majority is open to being explained what vaccines are, how they work, and why this can only be a positive thing for our society. But of course, there will always be a certain percentage of young people, who might be influenced by religious beliefs or their family beliefs or they might be more, in a way, naive and they will believe everything they hear or everything they feel more scared than others, and not accept vaccines just because they are scared. It’s a difficult question to answer basically. I do hope that is becoming a more positive approach towards vaccines in general.
Martyna Kompała: One of the EMSA’s goals is “vaccine hesitancy” – as we can read on the website, you “fight the myths and misinformation”. Is it hard nowadays, in the era of disinformation? Which tools do you use for that?
Chiara Močnik Pegan: Of course it is very difficult tackling vaccine hesitancy because I personally have had a bit of experience with people who are anti-vax or just not just totally pro-vaccine in the past couple of years. What I would say is the biggest issue is that people are scared because they don’t have enough knowledge to understand how vaccines work. And I think that this is mostly the source of all this distrust in the medical field and the whole vaccine issue. So what I always try to do is just explain to people in the easiest way possible, what vaccines are, why they are so important, how they are made, why they can’t be harmful to our bodies. And I think that is the most useful approach that usually has good results. The tools for reaching people are so different. Now with corona we have had to redirect more online, and also our efforts are based mostly online and we tried to reach students and other people through webinars, websites, and various articles and things, just to kind of make medicine more approachable for them, more accessible, more understandable. Webinars are a very good thing right now and our public health team in EMSA have a survey done on specifically COVID vaccines so they could get a sense of what people are thinking. I think that they were also working on a booklet, that is also useful for the people who want kind of a crash course on how vaccines work. It for sure is difficult because if we want to completely tackle the vaccine hesitancy and have everybody in the world agree with the vaccines, it would obviously be kind of impossible, just because it’s such a big mass of people. I find that the best approach in this is one-to-one. If I am talking to one person that has concerns about vaccines, it is easier for me to address what they are worried about and the doubts that they have. If I am talking to the general public, I can only tackle the main five issues, but then who knows what kind of questions people have about this topic. So a one-to-one approach is also very useful in this issue.
Martyna Kompała: So in your point of view how to encourage people who hesitate to get vaccinated?
Chiara Močnik Pegan: I think that we can’t just talk. We can’t just say “Vaccines are so great, you should get vaccinated”. I think we need to lead by example. So if we lead by example, there is a bigger chance that the people will follow us, because they see – “Okay, this person probably understands how vaccines work and weren’t scared to get vaccinated.” I think that it might give them a little trust in the whole thing. And as I said before, basically a one-on-one approach. Just sit with the person that is hesitant, try to talk to them like “What are your concerns, what is that bothers you.” And then try to explain to them in the best way possible, in the most simple way possible. Often it’s a really good way to direct them to reliable sources, because nowadays the internet is so full of so many articles that are not reliable and were not written by medical professionals, and someone who is not in the medical field might find it difficult to be critical of this sort of articles. So just directing them to a source of reliable information can also be really useful, so they can really like a certain Facebook page of this project that works on vaccines, or something like that. Then they usually post various articles and make them more understandable to the general public. So that can also be a good way of helping people. But then what I find is if someone doesn’t want to understand vaccines, it is just against them – you probably won’t change their mind. They have to be open to it, open to the topic of new knowledge, have some self-initiative and if they have questions, they should want to find answers themselves or talk to people who can help them, not just mindlessly claim that “Okay, vaccines are this and that”. That would probably be the best recommendation for someone who is vaccine-hesitant.
The interview was conducted as part of IMMUNION project / Wywiad jest częścią projektu IMMUNION.
Ten projekt jest współfinansowany przez program Unii Europejskiej w dziedzinie zdrowia (2014-2020) / This project is co-funded by the European Union’s Health Programme 2014-2020.