A Dalhousie University outreach group is working to overcome vaccine hesitancy among youth by going to Nova Scotia schools to teach students about how vaccines work and why they're needed to beat the COVID-19 pandemic.
The encouraging vaccine confidence program is an offshoot of Imhotep's Legacy Academy, a Dalhousie project that brings workshops into the classrooms to encourage young Black Nova Scotians to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math.
While the programming traditionally targets young Black Nova Scotians, the vaccine confidence sessions have been held both with groups of Black students and with more diverse audiences.
"Educating just one group of students is not going to halt the spread [of COVID-19] amongst younger people," said Haley Matthew, the project manager and lead developer.
So far, 450 students have taken part in one of the vaccine sessions, said Matthews, who is pursuing a masters of business administration in health-care management and a masters in psychology.
In Canada, kids five to 11 only became eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19 last week. For Nova Scotia, vaccinations for this age group will begin Dec. 2.
The vaccine confidence sessions usually take somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half, and include lessons on how vaccines work on a biological level, herd immunity and physical distancing.
In Nova Scotia, it's unclear what the vaccination rates are of any particular race. That's because there's no requirement for patients to self-identify race when booking a vaccine appointment, the province said in an emailed statement.
"This data is not reported on as it would not be statistically representative of these communities," it said.
Dr. David Haase, a retired doctor who serves as an adviser for the vaccine confidence project, said there's mistrust between Black people and the health-care system.
"There are historical reasons for mistrust in the medical system, but there are current things as well," said Hasse, who is trained in internal medicine and infectious diseases, and is the co-chair of the group Black Physicians of Nova Scotia.
Haase pointed to historical examples such as Black people being used in medical experiments without their permission and modern examples of people receiving poorer health-care treatment, such as Black babies being more likely to survive if they are treated by a Black doctor.
"The mistrust runs deep," he said. "It's not a superficial thing that's very easily dismissed."
Haase said that because Black people have higher rates of chronic illness and disease than other parts of the population, that makes it even more imperative for them to get vaccinated.
Matthews, who identifies as Black-Indigenous, said mistrust trickles down to young Black Nova Scotians.
"If they see that their parents don't have trust in the process, they're most likely going to be hesitant because of that and that influences their decisions," she said.
Matthews said they have encountered some hesitancy among students who want to get vaccinated, but don't want to go against the wishes of their parents.
"They're sort of on the fence," she said.
Matthews said students have been very engaged in the sessions. By the end of the sessions, Matthews said the participants feel comfortable explaining the topics to their peers.
'They can form their own opinion'
The programming is taught by Dalhousie University students who are often not much older than the young people they are instructing. Tori Ebanks, a third-year electrical engineering student and one of the instructors in the initiative, said she believes the smaller age gap makes the younger people more receptive to what they're hearing.
Ebanks said traditional means of getting information out to the public, such as COVID-19 briefings or media coverage, may not reach children and youth.
"I think it's very important to give this information to this age group so that they can have their own understanding of vaccines and the pandemic — and not just have to get this information from their parents or their other guardians — and they can form their own opinion," she said.
Matthews said schools interested in having a session should contact Imhotep's Legacy Academy.
The project is a result of a collaboration among several organizations: Université Sainte-Anne, the Canadian Center for Vaccinology, the Health Association of African Canadians and Promoting Leadership in Health for African Nova Scotians. Funding for the initiative came from the National Science and Engineering Research Council.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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