Dr Aayesha Hassan: Tackling Vaccine Hesitancy in the UK’s Somali Community

Somali communities have lower rates of child vaccination in the UK, largely due to the lack of relevant resources available to debunk the spread of misinformation through social media.

01.07.2019 | by Kezia Parkins
Photo taken from BBC video
Photo taken from BBC video

The anti-vax movement on social media is, in part, responsible for the increase in measles cases we are seeing around the globe.

Reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the wide availability and accessibility of vaccines threatens to reverse the incredible progress made in global health and in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases.

In recent years, we have seen a 30% increase in measles cases globally with some countries that were close to eliminating the disease seeing a resurgence. The World Health Organisation has named vaccine hesitancy as one of the world’s greatest threats to global health in 2019, alongside issues including air pollution, climate change, Ebola, Dengue Fever and HIV.

To tackle this epidemic, health professionals are calling for a life-course approach to vaccination that ensures that education and information around vaccination is available throughout a person’s life — rather than just for new mothers deciding whether or not to vaccinate their children.

This education, however, needs to be available and relevant to the entire population, including minority and migrant communities.

According to Public Health England, 231 measles cases were confirmed between January and March 2019, compared to 90 in the last quarter of 2018. The research also showed that Somali children are less likely to start their vaccine course, and less likely to complete a course once they start.  

Birmingham-based immunologist Dr Aayesha Hassan is fighting misinformation and distrust within the UK Somali community.

“My main worry is that these misinformations could lead to an unnecessary outbreak here again in the UK,” Hassan told the BBC.

Dr Hassan co-founded Failforward, a health initiative to educate minority communities about health services focused on addressing language barriers and cultural differences.

“When it comes to the current healthcare information that is available, it is not appropriate for the Somali as well as the ethnic minority communities.”

By holding regular meetings, workshops and focus groups with Somali mothers, she is able to give them the education and one-on-one time they need to understand vaccination and its importance in their own language. 

Mothers in Dr Hassan’s workshop expressed frustrations over not receiving any explanation from doctors on why they must vaccinate their children and what ingredients make up the vaccine. 

When one of the mothers expressed fears over her child getting autism — a myth that has been debunked scientifically multiple times but still clings to vaccines like a bad smell — Dr Hassan asserted that “what we need is facts, evidence. We can’t make decisions based on fears.” 

Being both an immunologist and a Somali mother enables her to relate to the other women’s cultural needs and gain their trust. 

Through Hassan’s work with the Somali community, she has found that there is just not enough information about vaccination for minorities to understand. 

“The bottom line is, knowledge is power, and if we want to engage our communities when it comes to vaccinations, then we have to take the initiative to empower our communities through knowledge.” 

Highly contagious disease like measles don’t discriminate. One unvaccinated child is enough to cause an outbreak epidemic. To avoid this situation, all communities need to understand the importance of vaccines, meaning the work of doctors like Aayesha Hassan is incredibly valuable. 

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