Vaccination drive could use a pollster

Once the war was won, these first “pollsters” were freed up to explore the formation and manipulation of attitudes about everything from politics to toothpaste.

Every segment of the opinion research industry has its strengths, but political campaign pollsters have a skill set that public health officials need badly these days. Political consultant researchers understand how to develop a message that penetrates doubt and cynicism, and that’s what the public health community is going to need as it launches the great campaign to inoculate Americans against the H1N1, or swine flu, virus.

Public polls are all over the place on what percentage of Americans plan to be inoculated, or to allow their children to get the shot, but there are enough low numbers out there to suggest this campaign could flop. And because the Internet conspiracy theory crowd is just getting started on its efforts to stigmatize the vaccine, this campaign is only beginning to glimpse the challenges ahead.

As with a political campaign, I began my investigation of the vaccination campaign by doing some qualitative, focus-group-like research. Trolling through websites where ordinary Americans are discussing the topic, I stumbled on the following comment at the site for social-networking moms:

“You know what I find sad about this whole thing?? Well I will tell you. The reason I feel it’s not safe is because it hasn’t been out there very long and they want to try it on my babies. But all the DR. say it is safe. Now wouldn’t you think you could trust Dr.’s But it seems to me we get lied to a lot and I just don’t believe anything anyone says any more. That’s the sad thing. So I vote NO I will take my chances and not get this shot for me or my kids.”

The small community discussing the issue at this site is agreeing with the poster. Sixty-two percent won’t let their children get the vaccine because they don’t believe it’s safe, versus 8 percent who feel we need the vaccine to keep kids safe. The rest are still deciding.

There are lots of polls out there that quantitatively validate that much of the public is not ready for this.

An online study by Rand researchers conducted last summer projected an H1N1 vaccination rate of just 49.6 percent.

A Consumers Union poll taken in early September found that “nearly two-thirds of U.S. parents say they will hold off having their children vaccinated ... or will not get them immunized at all.”

A University of Michigan survey found that only 40 percent of parents plan to have their kids immunized. More parents, 54 percent, surveyed in the same poll, plan to get the seasonal flu shot for their children, suggesting a particular sensitivity to the H1N1 vaccine.

An online survey by Nursing Times found that one-third of participating nurses will decline the vaccine.

A nationwide survey of school administrators found that 25 percent of schools will not allow their facilities to be used as sites for vaccinations, principally because of liability and safety concerns.
While there are other studies out there providing hope for more vaccinations, the overall picture is mixed. And the political set knows better than anyone that translating even favorable attitudes about the vaccine into action is the greatest challenge. Will those with intent actually turn out for their shots? Overcoming cynicism and apathy are talents that pollsters could bring to this enormous challenge.

David Hill is a member of the research faculty at Auburn University and has been a Republican pollster since 1984.