‘There is a lot of mistrust’: Researchers look at vaccine hesitancy among Indigenous Canadians

As Canada expands its vaccination program, a number of Indigenous people are still reluctant to get the COVID-19 shot — and for good reason.

A new paper published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal explores the root cause of vaccine hesitancy.

Jaris Swidrovich is an assistant professor at the University of Saskatchewan College of Pharmacy and Nutrition. He co-wrote the paper with Ian Mosby with the Ryerson University Department of History.

Read more: First Nations need to be prioritized for the coronavirus vaccine: FSIN

Swidrovich said it was important to write this paper to illuminate why people have a “very good reason” to be hesitant.

“Unfortunately, there have been things like nutritional experiments performed on children in residential schools, also previous vaccine experiments for tuberculosis,” Swidrovich said.

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“Even some people have been cited with what is the sudden change in priority, with us being the first priority for this vaccine, but we still have communities in Canada without safe drinking water.”

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Hesitancy doesn’t mean refusal, and Swidrovich said it implies taking a step back and having a few moments to think about it instead of just signing up.

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Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief of Alberta Marlene Poitras has also heard these worries.

“There is a lot of mistrust with the health-care system and the government,” Poitras said.

“Because of the racism and a lot of the awful issues that our people had to deal with.”

Read more: All eyes on Alberta COVID-19 vaccine booking system Wednesday for AstraZeneca

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Poitras said more could be done to help build trust between the government and First Nations communities.

“We have made some good progress in addressing infectious disease in First Nation communities,” Poitras said.

“We still have a long way to go to ensure that health needs are met by First Nations.

“That includes dealing with the issues of housing and water, and ensuring that we have proper health-care professionals in dealing with First Nation communities.”

Read more: Alberta to begin Phase 2A of COVID-19 vaccine rollout March 15; plan for AstraZeneca vaccine released

As Alberta enters Phase 2 of the vaccine rollout, more than 43,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit people over 50 are eligible to get the shot.

Poitras said many First Nation leaders have done good work in encouraging community members to get vaccinated.

“They are being encouraged to get the vaccine because, whether it’s 70 or 90 per cent efficacy, when you take the vaccine, and you somehow come into the contact with the virus, there is less probability you will end up in the hospital or dying from COVID-19,” Poitras said.

Health experts say that Indigenous communities in Canada can be at greater risk than other groups during a pandemic, particularly in low-income and crowded households, without adequate access to water.

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Click to play video 'Hinshaw says team is working with Indigenous populations who may mistrust vaccine rollout' Hinshaw says team is working with Indigenous populations who may mistrust vaccine rollout

Hinshaw says team is working with Indigenous populations who may mistrust vaccine rollout

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw understands why Indigenous people in the province are concerned. She said the government has been working closely with community leaders to support them and provide any information that is required.

“We can be partners, communicating to them and to be able to provide them with assurances about the safety of the vaccine, effectiveness of the vaccine, as well as making sure they understand the rationale for offering the vaccine to First Nation, Metis and Inuit people, given the higher risk those individuals have when compared, on age basis, to other Albertans,” Hinshaw said.

Poitras said the government could also take other steps to build more trust with Indigenous people and the health-care system.

“Do something small. On one hand, you’re dealing with policy and dealing with legislation. On the other hand, have a 1-800 number a person can call if they are experiencing racism in an emergency hospital,” Poitras said.

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“Little steps… It’s going to take a while to fix the problems we have but we need to take small steps to build that trust.”

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