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How Black medical experts are building trust within Black communities about vaccines

Is it safe to get both a flu and COVID-19 vaccine? Do we know the side effects of the vaccine? Do I need the vaccine if I’ve already had COVID-19?

While the answer to these questions — yes — is important, so is how the message is delivered, says Dr. Isaac Odame.

“People appreciate open conversations that aren’t dismissive or condescending.”

Dr. Odame — haematology section head and medical director of the Global Sickle Cell Disease Network at SickKids in Toronto — is part of the Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity, aiming to build trust in COVID-19 vaccines among members of the Black community. The group includes many of Canada’s top Black scientists involved in vaccine development and public health.

He explained while Black communities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, they are also among the most likely to decline vaccines.

“It comes down to inequities and long-standing mistrust. People are suspicious, asking ‘when has the system placed us at the front of the line?’” — Dr. Isaac Odame

Black communities have also been among the hardest hit by COVID-19. Black Torontonians account for 9% of the city’s population but make up 26% of hospital admissions due to the virus.

Dr. Odame explained when Black patients receive medical advice from Black health professionals, they are more likely to accept it. With that in mind, the task force launched a series of five town halls to answer questions submitted by the public.  

How to talk to patients about the COVID-19 vaccine

Patients have questions about vaccines. The CMA has compiled resources to help you have these conversations — including talking tips, patient information sheets, medical-legal considerations and trustworthy information on vaccines and vaccine safety. Learn more.

The questions posed by the community have been wide ranging.

In one town hall, on misinformation and conspiracy theories, immunologist Dr. David Burt responded to concerns about COVID-19 vaccines altering DNA.

“RNA or DNA from these vaccines do not alter our DNA,” explained Dr. Burt, who has spent more than 30 years researching and developing vaccines against infectious diseases. “The science tells us this can’t happen.”

But he also said he understands why people are confused about this issue, given that it’s one of the most common conspiracies being shared on social media.

It appears the task force’s approach is working.

A post-event survey revealed that before listening to the town hall, 31% of registered attendees were hesitant to take the vaccine. After, the number dropped to 11%, with those respondents saying they wanted more information. In total, 84% of people who attended the town hall said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Not only is the message important, but the messenger matters.” — Dr. Isaac Odame

It isn’t just Canadians tuning into the town halls. People logged into the sessions from Ghana, Greece, Jamaica, Nigeria, the United Kingdom and the United States. As of mid-March, more than 1,200 people had attended.

“It was beyond our wildest dreams,” said Dr. Odame. “We think the people who are still hesitant will take the vaccine after more discussion.”

The Black Scientists’ Task Force on Vaccine Equity was created in December 2020 in partnership with the TAIBU Community Health Centre. It includes Dr. Akwatu Khenti, Dr. Na-Koshie Lamptey, Celina Caesar-Chavannes, Dr. Kwame McKenzie, Dr. Candice Todd, Francis Jeffers, Dr. Zainab Abdurrahman, Dr. Onye Nnorom, Trevor Aldridge, Dr. Upton Allen, Ashleigh Rae-Thomas, Dr. Isaac Odame, Dr. David Burt and Nicole Welch.

About the author(s)

The CMA unites the medical profession in Canada to improve the health of Canadians and strengthen the health care system.