Building trust in vaccines through science

As the country ramps-up its most significant mass-vaccination campaign in modern history, there’s a continued need to remind people about why these vaccines are so important to public health.

That’s where HealthPartners Institute comes in. Our experts are working to build trust in the new vaccines and medical research overall.

“Mistrust in the healthcare system exists, and this is why it is important that people in the community participate in building awareness and confidence,” said Gabriela Vazquez Benitez, PhD, senior research investigator at the Institute. “We all are contributing to fight the pandemic. We have a responsibility for our health, our relatives and our community.”

“The benefits outweigh any of the risks”

Gabriela has been part of various projects that explore vaccine safety, including a recent CDC-funded project that will monitor COVID-19 vaccination among pregnant women. She’s also very active in the Latine community and is sharing her expertise to help build confidence.

Gabriela talking with Cafe Libre in late February

“I tell people that the benefits of the vaccines outweigh any of the risks. It is okay to have some doubts. The decision to receive a vaccination is individual. But it needs to be informed by trusted sources,” Gabriela said. “Most importantly, there are many efforts to evaluate the safety and effectiveness after emergency authorizations. If there are any safety concerns, there are processes in place to address them.”

In recent weeks, she’s participated in multiple live social media interviews with HACER, which stands for Hispanic advocacy and community empowerment through research. The organization works to give Latine communities a voice in public policy and decision making, and is one of twelve COVID-19 community coordinator organizations contracted by Minnesota Department of Health to serve communities hit hardest by COVID-19.

Gabriela has also discussed vaccine safety on Café Libre, a weekly news show on Univision Minnesota, and through community organization Marnita’s Table.

A lesson on medical research

As a co-investigator on the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine trial at HealthPartners, Dr. Zeke McKinney has also been speaking about all-things vaccine with various community organizations, including the African American Leadership Forum and Open Cities Health Center.

After seeing him discussing vaccine research and vaccine hesitancy on the news, one of Dr. McKinney’s former elementary school teachers asked him if he’d join a virtual discussion on the topic with Coon Rapids High School students.

Dr. Zeke McKinney

The Q & A session was part of the school’s Black History Month curriculum, and started with a student-led presentation about the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments, a notoriously unethical project that lasted decades.

This immoral medical research paved the way for many of the safeguards now in place to protect trial participants, Dr. McKinney explained.

“A lot of the hesitancy in the Black community and communities of color around clinical research is because of the Tuskegee experiments. It’s not the only bad thing that’s happened, but it’s probably the most notable and the one that people can reference off the top of their head.”

Today, research is overseen by independent review boards and is 100 percent voluntary. You can learn more about HealthPartners Research Subject Protection Program and clinical trial safety on the Institute’s website. Good medical research, like the recent COVID-19 vaccine trials, strives for a diverse mix of participants, not just from one race or ethnicity. This diverse representation makes for better science – and better science leads to better medical care.

“As people of communities of color are aware, there’s always some degree of anxiety when engaging with health care or health care research. We have to be sensitive to this and very much acknowledge this mistrust and distrust.,” Dr. McKinney added. “Hopefully over time we can develop systems and processes that can make people more comfortable when they are going into these environments.”

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