The Canadian Shield: Vaccine Hesitancy and Ontario’s Immunization 2020 Health Initiative

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Westerveld, Kelly
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Mount Saint Vincent University
There was a time when diseases such as measles, mumps, whooping cough and polio posed an imminent threat to Canadians, hopscotching across the country unimpeded. But starting with the whooping cough vaccine in 1918, Canada had a new weapon against those diseases — armour that could not be easily penetrated — and slowly the diseases’ spread ebbed. However in recent years, Canada’s shield has begun to crack. Most Canadians immunize their children, but there’s a growing trend away from vaccines and the protection they provide. Faced with falling immunization rates, the Ontario government released Immunization 2020: Modernizing Ontario’s Publicly Funded Immunization Program, a 20-point action plan with the simple goal of increasing public uptake of immunizations. This study uses both content and fantasy theme analyses to examine how Immunization 2020’s key messages manifested in media coverage, how the concept of vaccination is embodied in reader comments following media coverage about Immunization 2020, themes and stories that are present within vaccine-hesitant discourse communities and how those themes and stories function to form a vaccine-hesitant group identity that maintains vaccine hesitancy. Results from the content analysis show that of the eight key messages, evidence-informed choices was the only one to appear in every article. Notably, other key messages crucial to addressing public trust in vaccines such as shared responsibility, patients first/patient-centred or transparency did not appear frequently. In the fantasy theme analysis, vaccine-hesitant parents emerged as a rhetorical community that used four stock scenarios to create a culture among group members. Vaccine-hesitant parents engaged in discourse that positioned group members as the heroes and members of the public, the government and vaccine makers as the villains. Three rhetorical visions also emerged, creating a worldview that maintained vaccine hesitancy. Overall, vaccine-hesitant parents share common ground, symbols and stories that build a shared identity and reality. Belonging to this community goes beyond a simple decision about vaccines, making it very difficult for parents to “switch sides” and immunize their children. In the absence of another online community that encourages immunization, vaccine-hesitant parents stick with the one that persuades them to stay by validating their stories and the one with which they share an identity.
Vaccine hesitancy, immunizations, fantasy theme analysis, culture, shared identity, vaccine-hesitant discourses, health communication