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Two Mason studies analyze interest in vaccines against emerging infectious diseases

January 18, 2017   /   by Jamie Rogers

Two studies conducted by George Mason University researchers are among the first to examine public interest in theoretical vaccines for two of the most feared and widely known viruses at the height of recent outbreaks.

The studies attempt to identify the reasons why people might be open to accepting vaccines for Zika or Ebola for themselves or their children, said Julia Painter, an assistant professor of global and community health in the College of Health and Human Services, who was the lead investigator on both studies. 

In the first study, conducted among a U.S. national sample, just 34 percent of the 1,417 people surveyed said they would want to be vaccinated against Ebola. The study was conducted in spring 2015, during the height of the Ebola crisis in West Africa. At the time, Ebola vaccine trials were being conducted in West Africa, yet no vaccine existed, Painter said.

A slightly higher amount—38 percent—said they would vaccinate their children, according to the study, published this month at Sciencedirect.com.

Such a low interest in an Ebola vaccine isn’t what scientists expected, she said, because of the culture of fear that prevailed during the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak.

“Some scientists called it ‘Fearbola,’” Painter said of the media coverage of the Ebola outbreak. Painter worked as an investigator for the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta during the outbreak. She joined the George Mason faculty in spring 2016; Mason's Mike von Fricken worked with Painter on the study. 

The low interest in the vaccine possibly points to low levels of perceived susceptibility, researchers said. Or, it could point to concerns about vaccine safety or the mistrust of new vaccines.

Interest in vaccinating themselves and interest in vaccinating their children were highly correlated, Painter said. This may point to the existence of a subset of people who are very interested in protection against infectious diseases in general, she said, and such  a group may readily accept vaccines during future pandemics.

“People who thought of Ebola as a threat not only to themselves but to their country were more likely to get the vaccine,” Painter said. “They think of it as a problem bigger than [themselves].”

Researchers turned to George Mason University students for the study “Zika Virus Knowledge, Attitudes and Vaccine Interest among University Students.” Painter and Mason's Kathryn Jacobsen used the study to gather clues on how a Zika vaccine, which is currently in development, would be received if it were already available, Painter said. Undergraduate students may be an important group to protect against Zika virus, which is major concern for pregnant women, and by extension, women of childbearing age.

In the United States, nearly half of all women between the ages of 18 and 24 are enrolled in colleges and universities. Many undergraduate students travel to areas where they could get Zika virus from mosquitos, such as Mexico or Florida―and even students who are not at risk for mosquito-borne transmission may be vulnerable to infection via sexual contact.

Painter’s team, which included Global and Community Health undergraduate students Ashley Plaster and Dylan Tjersland, surveyed 619 undergraduate students in April 2016. More than half, about 52 percent, said they would be likely or very likely to accept a Zika vaccine.

She cautioned that women and health science majors were overrepresented in the study, so the data collected shouldn’t be used to generalize the public’s feeling about a Zika vaccine.

Interest in the vaccine was higher among those who had received a flu shot within the past year, were knowledgeable about the virus, knew where to get information about the virus, had higher perceived susceptibility to Zika or believed the U.S. government should prioritize the Zika virus, Painter said.

Similar to findings from the Ebola study, students who thought of Zika virus as a threat to themselves and as a national priority were more likely to express interest in the vaccine.

This study provides an important first step toward understanding how demographic and psychosocial factors might influence eventual uptake of a licensed Zika virus vaccine. As Zika virus epidemiology and vaccine development continue to evolve, ongoing research evaluating attitudes toward vaccination is critical, Painter said.