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St. Louis health officials worry vaccine misinformation is leading some to skip flu shots

Health officials say the flu could surge this winter. But vaccine misinformation and distrust of health agencies is keeping some from getting their flu shot.
Cristina Spanò
Health officials say the flu could surge this winter. But vaccine misinformation and distrust of health agencies is keeping some people from getting their flu shot.

St. Louis-area health officials are worried that people who don’t trust the COVID-19 vaccine are becoming hesitant to get other immunizations.

Clinical trials have proven the COVID-19 vaccine is safe and largely effective at preventing serious illness and death. But health workers are concerned that conspiracy theories about how scientists developed the vaccine, along with mistrust of public health agencies, could be leading some people to avoid other immunizations, such as the yearly flu shot.

“We have seen a decrease in uptake for influenza and other adult immunizations and things we see requests for,” like shingles, said Sara Evers, acting health director of the St. Charles County Health Department. “I can say anecdotally, people are questioning a lot about their health care more.”

Doctors expect the flu virus to spread more this year as fewer people take public health precautions against the coronavirus. That’s why it’s important to get the flu vaccine this season.

Fewer people are getting flu shots this year compared to this point last year, when many people were staying home, said Missouri Health and Senior Services Don Kauerauf.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 24% of children have gotten their flu shot this season, down from 32% in 2020. About 22% of pregnant people have gotten their 2021 flu shot, a decrease of 16 percentage points from the year before.

The coronavirus pandemic laid bare problems with access and distrust of the medical system, Kauerauf said. People are more skeptical about the health services they get and the organizations disseminating information.

“Ten years, 20 years ago ... we just came out with the information. We’d post the need to vaccinate, largely it was accepted, and it went through,” Kauerauf said. “We cannot use the old playbook. We’re going to have to go back and be much more educative on the front end.”

Public health officials must provide access and accurate information to counter falsehoods that proliferate on social media, said Lakesha Butler, a pharmacy professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

“The message is unfortunately spreading,” she said. “There is now potentially this hesitancy with other vaccines. And it’s more of ‘I’ll just wait, it’s not a priority.’”

Doctors in the St. Louis region say adults are skeptical of vaccinations.

Dr. Ken Haller, a pediatrician at Danis Pediatrics in St. Louis and SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Hospital, hasn’t seen a decrease in the number of vaccinations for his child patients. But he’s seen concerns from parents, who are mostly looking for more information, he said.

“Generally, if we have a conversation about that, what people are really looking for is reassurance that we have looked at the studies, and this is going to be safe for their kids,” Haller said. “Unfortunately, there's so much out there in various media raising unfounded questions about it. Questions that really have no foundation, that’s causing some anxiety.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.