Gen Z, Millennials Are Next Vaccine Challenge

A teenager receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 coronavirus vaccine in Israel's Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv on 23 January, 2021. (AFP Photo)

Younger people aren't as scared of the virus, so they're often more hesitant about getting vaccinated than their elders.

As the days grow longer, there’s a palpable feeling of hope in the air – at least in the more fortunate western countries. Thanks in part to vaccines, COVID-19 deaths are dropping in the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US), enabling parts of normal life to resume. But, as we’re well aware, it’s not over yet. If we want to have a shot at halting transmission, everybody needs their jabs.

Governments around the world desperately need to close the yawning vaccine gap between rich and poor nations. But as wealthy nations begin offering vaccinations to younger cohorts, they may hit a challenge closer to home.

While Brits have proven overwhelmingly open to getting inoculated against COVID, vaccine uptake could drop to as low as 75 percent among younger age groups from 95 percent for those over 70, according to scenarios by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. 

That corresponds with what polls have shown during the pandemic: Millennials and Gen Z are more likely to be hesitant about getting vaccinated than their elders.

Hesitation In The UK And US 

While the majority of Brits will take the vaccine, young people are the most hesitant. It’s a similar picture in the US. Young Americans display the most hesitation when asked whether they would get the COVID-19 vaccine. Lockdowns hit young adults hard. They were more likely to lose their job or get furloughed. Many have suffered from the mental health impacts of having to put their lives on hold. 

So, any hesitancy toward vaccines, given their promise of a path to normality, might seem surprising. But younger people just aren’t as scared of the virus. They’re less likely to end up in the hospital and, while Long COVID is a worry, they may have recovered from a mild infection or seen friends shake it off. It’s therefore harder for them to ignore concerns about side effects, unlike older adults whose risk analysis will skew the opposite way.

Risk-Benefit Analysis

Adults in their twenties and thirties are more concerned about vaccine side-effects than the virus itself. Concerns about blood clots linked to the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which tend to occur in younger people but are extremely rare, may have an impact.

Luckily, hesitant people can be persuaded to change their mind. In UCL’s Virus Watch study, of those who indicated in December that they would turn down a vaccine, or were unsure about taking one, an astonishing 86 percent said in February that they would be open to being inoculated against COVID – a trend that cut across ethnicities and age groups. We mustn’t ignore other reasons why people don’t get inoculated, according to Parth Patel, lead author of the UCL Virus Watch paper. 

If people have to trek across town, take a day off work or be registered with a general practitioner to get vaccinated, those can all be barriers preventing them from getting their shots. This helps explain why, while UK hesitancy rates have dropped rapidly among all ethnicities and backgrounds, vaccination rates didn’t increase as quickly.

Any disparity in vaccine rates even within specific groups could affect the course of the pandemic. As Patel explains, herd immunity isn't just a national concept, it plays out across local communities, too: “If you're a young person who only interacts with young people and everyone around you has a low vaccine uptake, that's a risk.”

It’s still early days. Vaccine rollouts are continuing in the UK and the US. As they do, young people will see more people they love and trust get vaccinated. And governments can do plenty to help boost vaccination rates – making it as easy as possible to get the jab will make a world of difference. – Bloomberg

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