Vax hesitancy studied

SOCIAL scientist and Booragoon resident Katie Attwell has been studying vaccination since before it was cool. 

“I feel very privileged to have this expertise, and to be able to use it and share it now,” she says. 

With Covid reshaping the national discussion around vaccination, Ms Attwell and a team of researchers at UWA and Telethon Kids Institute have identified the need for more research around vaccine hesitancy in parents. 

The topic is especially urgent as the Australian government has made the Pfizer jab available to kids 12 and up from September 13.

“Everyone’s quite knowledgeable in the area I work in now,” says Ms Attwell. On the one hand, this means increased interest and awareness. On the other, it means increased tension and conflict.

Some of the issues unique to Covid vaccination are obvious: “It’s much more challenging because some people have concerns about this vaccine they wouldn’t have about other vaccines,” she says.

But the researchers are in uncharted and deeply complex territory when it comes to how Covid’s high contagion rate affects not just individuals, but communities. We’re in this together, whether we agree on it or not.

“Some people are feeling that what they’re doing, and their status around vaccination, is being weighed into like never before,” says Ms Attwell. 

“Everybody is concerned about what everybody else is doing because now we’re being told by the government that our collective status as a community will determine policies that we face around lockdowns, reopening borders, etcetera.”

The vaccination level of those around us is tied into not only our autonomy but our safety. 

It’s for this reason Ms Attwell prefers the term “community protection” to “herd immunity”. “We’re not a herd,” she says, “we’re a community”. 


She adds that “immunity” means a person does not fall ill when in contact with the virus, but “protection” means those unable to get the jab are safer because those around them are vaccinated.

This is why Ms Attwell says the argument “your kids are vaccinated so why do you care if mine are?” – which her pre-Covid work has made her extremely familiar with – doesn’t hold up in the current landscape.

“We haven’t had it here. But when the borders reopen, other people being vaccinated is not going to be enough to protect you from getting sick.”

She wants mass vaccination to ensure young children and people with comorbidities who can’t get the jab and may be vulnerable to the disease will have greater protection.

Still, says Ms Atwell, the heart of the project is research, not advocacy. She hopes the results will allow a vaccine rollout without coercion because people felt heard and the government could share information that addressed their concerns: “Now is a critical juncture for people to be heard,” she said.

With No Jab, No Play already implemented across the country, Ms Attwell says it’s possible the government will mandate Covid vaccines for kids. But “the best vaccination program is a voluntary one” she says. 

Previous research has given Ms Attwell some insight into how to talk to people about complex issues. “You try to think where they’re coming from and what you might have in common with that.” 

For example, when someone says they’re worried about the long-term effects of the jab, Ms Attwell hears that they take their health very seriously: “I take my health very seriously, too,” she says

The research also showed anti-vaxxers generally came from both extremes of the political spectrum, and in left-leaning Freo, Ms Attwell says mistrust of government and big pharma, and adherence to a nature-based lifestyle are shared concerns – on some level something virtually everyone can relate to.

“The demonisation of people who resist and refuse the vaccine is unhelpful because we’re all just trying to do the best we can for ourselves and our kids.”

The team at UWA and Telethon Kids is encouraging parents who oppose or aren’t sure about vaccinating their kids to sign up for the study. To do so, they can head to 

The researchers follow strict protocols around anonymity and Ms Atwell says they aren’t about converting interviewees.


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