Dr. Manorama Khare

A mistrust of science and a lack of confidence in vaccine safety are barriers to getting the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a study conducted by University of Illinois College of Medicine Rockford researchers among residents in rural Northern and Central Illinois. Results of this research appear in the latest issue of Ethnicity & Disease.

“Understanding vacci­nation attitudes and barriers in rural communities is critical for develop­ing strategies to increase rural vac­cine uptake,” says principal investigator Manorama Khare, PhD, a research associate professor and director of the Division of Health Research and Evaluation in the UICOMR Department of Family and Community Medicine. Other UICOMR researchers included Kristine Zimmermann, PhD; Francis K. Kazungu, MS; and David Pluta, MPH.

This isn’t just a local problem, according to Dr. Khare. Globally, rural areas are associated with vaccine hesitancy despite evidence that vaccines are highly effective for preventing COVID-19 hospitalizations and death.

The study was conducted in early 2021, when COVID-19 vaccines were not readily available and before the Delta variant caused a surge in cases. A 54-item survey was conducted online and in-person by working with community partner organizations and rural pharmacies where UIC College of Pharmacy students were able to reach out to potential participants.

Most of the 121 unvaccinated survey respondents who indicated they had no intention of getting the vaccine did not trust the science behind vaccine development, did not believe the vaccine was safe, and did not think the vaccine was needed. Some of these participants also reported engaging in health behaviors that could potentially increase the risk of COVID infection, such as attending large gatherings and not wearing masks outside the home. Other perceived barriers to getting the vaccine included lack of or access to transportation to get to a vaccine site, having to travel too far to a site, and having to pay for the vaccine.

“Similarities between our study and findings from global communities demonstrate the need for community engagement and reducing barriers to increase vaccination rates in rural communities,” says Dr. Khare. “Mobile clinics and providing transportation to vaccination centers could address system-level barriers for rural residents who intend to get the vaccine. The real work is in building trust between healthcare providers and the communities they serve, which could help dispel misinformation and encourage more people to get what can be life-saving vaccines.”