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NMSU students lead research on COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy

  • By Carlos Andres López
  • 575-646-1955
  • carlopez@nmsu.edu
  • Oct 18, 2021
A collage of four headshots

Countries across the world began administering COVID-19 vaccines in late 2020 – but by summer 2021, vaccine hesitancy had become a global concern.

However, a team of three public health graduate students at New Mexico State University anticipated misinformation, myths and hesitancy surrounding COVID-19 vaccines several months earlier. Under the mentorship of NMSU public health sciences professor Jagdish Khubchandani, the trio set out on a mission to understand vaccination hesitancy on a global scale. 

Their research efforts resulted in four published studies examining vaccine hesitancy.

“Within a short period, their studies have been cited more than 100 times in scientific outlets and widely covered by media channels,” Khubchandani said. “Despite challenges from the pandemic, the quality of graduate education at NMSU and the diligence of our students has allowed us to continue to contribute to the scientific world and the larger cause of public health. We are continuing our research on these topics to better prepare for the future and solve real-world problems.”

Nirbachita Biswas, a physician from Bangladesh pursuing a master’s degree in public health, led the research efforts that resulted in the team’s first published study focused on vaccine hesitancy among health care workers. In her review of 76,741 health care professionals worldwide, Biswas found 22.5 percent did not want to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, citing concerns over safety, side effects and efficacy. Biswas published her findings in the Journal of Community Health in April.

“Health care professionals can play a critical role in COVID-19 vaccination promotion and advocacy. Unfortunately, if they resist these vaccines, it is not clear how they can serve as advocates for their patients,” Biswas said. “With more data now available on the benefits and safety of the vaccines, there is an urgent need to create interventions to address the concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines among health professionals.”

Yilda Macias, a first-generation college student who started her graduate studies in public health at NMSU last fall, co-authored a study on COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among racial and ethnic minorities.

For the study, Macias reviewed a sample of 107, 841 American adults and found an overall vaccine hesitancy rate of 26.3 percent for the entire group. But she found much higher rates of hesitancy among African Americans (41.6 percent) and Hispanic adults (30.2 percent). The journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity-Health published Macias’s findings in May.

“While the virus has affected the whole nation, cases and deaths have been disproportionately higher among racial and ethnic minorities,” she said. “Our review provides recommendations and strategies to increase vaccination among these groups to reduce their disproportionate burden of COVID-19 deaths.”

Toheeb Mustapha, who came to NMSU from Nigeria and recently earned a master’s degree in public health, led the third and most recent study centered on COVID-19 vaccination hesitancy in students and trainees in health care professions.

Mustapha’s study found a vaccine hesitancy rate of 18.9 percent in a sample of 19,991 students and trainees in health care professions from 39 countries. Participants in this study shared similar concerns cited by practicing health care workers. Mustapha published his findings in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity-Health in June. 

“Throughout the pandemic, a lot of trainees and students in health care professions were at frontlines, putting them at risk of COVID-19 infections,” he said. “With new variants emerging, health care professionals cannot afford to be unvaccinated. Beyond protecting themselves, they serve as the role models for the general public regarding health matters.”

Mustapha said his time at NMSU helped prepare him for the Ph.D. program he recently started at the University of Louisville.

“The training at NMSU has prepared me for my doctoral journey, both in terms of classes and research,” he said. “The research I conducted with faculty at NMSU also helped me understand and increase my appreciation for our duties as public health professionals.”

In the latest study, Khubchandani and the team of NMSU students analyzed vaccine refusal among 31,948 non-medical college students around the world and found that 22 percent refused to get the vaccine. 

“We observed that students in health professions may have slightly lower refusal rates for COVID-19 vaccination. However, it seems like irrespective of the major or field of study in college, almost a fifth of the college students around the world may not prefer to get vaccinated anytime soon,” Khubchandani said. 

In the study, the researchers point out that since colleges and universities around the world contribute to the social, economic and cultural climates of their communities, efforts must be made to improve vaccination uptake in college populations. 

“In all our studies, we provide guidance and recommendations on how to achieve high vaccination rates among various populations,” the researchers said.

The latest study was published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity this month.