Immunization in a COVID-19 Era, Autumn/Winter Season: Insights and Highlights from our Roundtable

Author: Luisa Cunha

Latincouver has recently had the remarkable opportunity to host a virtual roundtable discussion that brought together a panel of experts and community leaders. The topic of the debate Immunization in a COVID-19 Era, Autumn/Winter Season: Challenges and Opportunities for Equity-Seeking Groups. Latincouver had the honour to welcome an audience of key representatives from Latinx, Indigenous and newcomer communities, as well as our knowledgeable panelists:

Honorary Consul Antonio of Costa Rica Arreaga-Valdes, champion of Canada-Central America international business and member of Latincouver’s Elder Council.

Angela Contreras-Chavez, PhD, independent consultant at Verapax Solutions that specializes in monitoring, evaluation, and disseminating knowledge of social innovations. 

Duberlis Ramos, Executive Director of the Hispanic Development Council, has promoted the Latinx community’s participation in the larger framework of social and economic issues.  

Dr. Irene Santos, internationally trained medical doctor, Mother-Infant Nutrition Master and Public Health Sciences PhD, with over 25 years of experience caring for disadvantaged populations, teaching and researching. 

Dr. Jorge Filmus Professor at the Dept. of Medical Biophysics, University of Toronto, and member of the Latin American COVID-19 Task Force. 

Dr. Krishana Sankar, award-winning researcher, trained scientist and sought-after speaker, whose expertise has been shared on international outlets including Reuters, the Huffington Post, and Global Citizen.

Martha Jara and Luisa Cunha, who are both from Latincouver, led a discussion on the current state of vaccination efforts. The conversation included valuable insights from expert panelists on promoting immunization, addressing vaccine hesitancy, and implementing effective vaccination campaigns. The roundtable generated a thought-provoking dialogue; this article will summarize the discussion regarding immunization inequalities and how to overcome them for the benefit of all communities.

Main barriers to immunization for marginalized communities

One of the main discussion topics was the unequal access to health and immunization services for equity-seeking groups. Our panelists discussed the current state of vaccination in Canada and the impact on Latinx, Black, Indigenous, newcomers and other marginalized communities. There was a consensus that there are systemic inequalities and barriers in immunization access. Systemic barriers could range from lack of resources, such as transportation and child care, lack of accurate vaccine information, and language barriers.

Experts have identified that systemic discrimination against specific communities can lead to misinformation and a lack of trust in public systems. Discrimination poses significant challenges for individuals with temporary or precarious status in Canada. When officials require health cards or IDs for vaccination purposes, it creates a risk for those communities and thus, the society in general. Individuals who are undocumented or have refugee status are faced with a tough decision between getting immunized and risking deportation. For Black and Indigenous communities, the history of violence and discrimination leads to a lack of trust in official bodies. Furthermore, the Latinx community in Canada is affected by invisibility and a lack of political organization to demand more resources. 

The lack of trust in public authorities is also a fuel for misinformation and vaccine hesitancy. Social media platforms are plagued with inaccurate vaccine information which has real-life impacts. Most immigrants tend to get information from social media instead of traditional channels, such as national news and reports, so they are exposed to damaging vaccine information.  

Best strategies to encourage immunization

It is worth noting that there has been a significant improvement in the number of individuals receiving vaccinations in various communities. However, guest speakers have identified a pressing need to increase vaccination rates across all demographics while addressing vaccine hesitancy and fatigue. Recently, panelists identified a decline in booster shots for younger populations, a decrease in childhood vaccinations, and a noteworthy resistance among males aged 15-29 toward getting vaccinated. This underscores the importance of implementing effective strategies to promote vaccination and combat infectious diseases.

During our discussions on how to tackle declining vaccine uptake, community action emerged as a prominent theme. Panelists observed that grassroots efforts driven by community leaders were more effective than large-scale government initiatives. Specifically, when individuals with specialized knowledge and experience related to vulnerable groups were involved in sharing evidence-based vaccine information, their messages were received more positively. Furthermore, speakers remarked on the importance of incorporating indigenous perspectives and traditional knowledge into campaigns.

Accessible vaccination services that are available to everyone, regardless of legal status and offered in multiple languages, are also critical to addressing low immunization rates. Trust in health systems and science should be promoted. To support these efforts, panelists suggested several communication strategies. Instead of directly calling for vaccination, vaccine promoters can develop broader messages emphasizing the negative consequences of infectious diseases and the benefits of vaccination. Historical examples of successful vaccination campaigns, such as the eradication of polio in Africa, can also be showcased, as well as storytelling. Finally, vaccine ambassadors should be respectful and avoid being condescending, they should show genuine interest in their audience and communicate and share knowledge in a culturally appropriate manner.

Lessons learned for public authorities and to better prepare for future pandemics.

One of the key takeaways from our discussion is the need to integrate indigenous perspectives, traditional knowledge, and historical lessons into our decision-making processes for immunization projects. In addition, it is important to adopt community-led initiatives that prioritize creating barrier-free services tailored to the diverse needs of communities. This involves actively engaging with community members to better understand their unique needs and challenges and working collaboratively to develop effective solutions. Another important aspect is to ensure continued funding and scale-up of these activities to maximize their impact and reach. As highlighted by our panelists, when engaging with communities to improve health outcomes, individuals should be attentive to other needs and concerns that they may have, such as well-being, safety, and economic status. By doing so, we can foster stronger, healthier communities that are better equipped to cope with the present and future challenges.

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