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WCPH 2020 Blog

Research and vaccine hesitancy in Italy: the challenge of COVID-19

  Programme related - Stefania Boccia - 4 Sep 2020 9:00 CET

Italy was the first Western country to be hit hard by the pandemic with over 6,500 new diagnosis daily at its peak and more than 800 COVID-19 related deaths by the end of March. However, after the lockdown the number of daily cases soon hovered around just a few. Lately, cases have increased as well as imported ones. The median age of people that contract the infection has dropped to 29 years. The spread of the virus occurs more often across youth after commercial activities reopened, places where youths gathered and with increased mobility within and across different countries.

In parallel in the last few months, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers around the world have worked as fast and as collaborative as possible to gather evidence in order to face this unprecedented challenge. The whole scientific community has joined forces, in this unprecedented humanitarian and economic crisis, to respond to the pandemic under different aspects. Some are collaborating in the rush to develop a vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The development of it requires time and the need to undergo specific and important steps before being adopted in the general population. Its safety, its ability to protect against a severe disease, its duration of protection are of utmost importance.

Despite the increased collaboration and knowledge shared worldwide between people and institutions of steadily new data, this not matched by a parallel increase in trust of scientific research in Italy. All these enormous efforts and challenges may be hindered by a common phenomenon that is widely occurring: vaccine hesitancy. The causes of is phenomenon are not perfectly clear yet. They are various and include, among others, lack of trust in biomedical science. In Italy, where I am writing from, we have studied this phenomenon and we recorded 59% of interviewed people likely or very likely to get vaccinated. This means that another 41% is not. Furthermore, a significantly reduced trust in science and in vaccination has been reported. This happens regardless of age. The elderly were not more ready to get vaccinated compared to youth or healthy people, even if they are more susceptible to potentially severe consequences after getting infected by the virus.

This might mean that messages sent by media regarding the scientific discussion on the pandemic has somehow failed. Information to the public should be accompanied with both educating the population and engaging with them. Discussion and dialogue between the scientific sector and the population is crucial. People should be engaged, reassured and be made partner in the scientific debate in order to gain their trust. As a matter of fact, if all the efforts carried out by the scientific community, that will eventually lead to the development of an effective vaccine, and its work on scientific research is not considered as a multi-level phenomenon where citizens are called to take part, it could result in a missed opportunity to protect part of the human community that we all belong to.

Engagement of citizens is needed to co-create collaborative agendas between the communities of citizen themselves and health professionals. I humbly believe these two non-mutually exclusive categories are both, now more than ever, called to reinforce the sense of belonging to the single community, that of the human being, that is called to support, protect, help one another and regain trust and connections one another.

Stefania Boccia
Faculty of Medicine, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Rome Italy
President EUPHA Public health Epidemiology section
Editor in Chief ‘Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Public Health’


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