Why Do College Kids Avoid Flu Shots?

Study looks at why college students avoided the H1N1 flu vaccine

(RxWiki News) College students were at high risk for infection during the H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak in 2009. So why did so many avoid the free flu shots offered by their campus' health clinics?

In 2009, at the height of the swine flu panic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched an emergency outreach campaign to get college kids vaccinated against the virus. It got a low response - only 8 percent of those who were targeted with the message to get a flu shot actually did it.

A new study looks at the reasons why students ignored the health campaign and their risk of coming down with a dangerous strain of flu.

"Get information about your risk of disease from a credible source."

The study was conducted by Z. Janet Yang, an assistant professor of communications at SUNY Buffalo. She works with the Cornell Risk Communication Research Group, which studies how people perceive and respond to different types of risks.

In the case of H1N1, there was plenty of information in 2009 about who might be at risk for infection. It was one of the top stories in the media that year.

Most college campuses were offering free vaccinations for students, who were in a high risk category because 80 percent of infections were in people under 30. At colleges, the virus could easily spread through people living in close proximity to each other in dorms.

Dr. Yang wanted to know why, when there was such high public awareness of H1N1, and free and easy access to the vaccine, students had such low rates of vaccination – only 8 percent.

Using what's called a “risk information seeking and processing model,” Dr. Yang surveyed 317 college students online. The small sample size means that the results shouldn't be subject to generalize across all students, everywhere, but it's a way to start to understand how they perceive and process risk from the information available.

Based on the data she received from her survey, Yang concluded that it's not that students don't know enough about their risks – it's that they overestimated how much they thought they knew about H1N1. In other words, although they considered themselves educated on the subject, many had false beliefs about their risk and the vaccine.

Some students thought that there might be side effects involving allergies, or maybe causing other immune system disorders. Others thought that the media might be exaggerating the risks. Social media sites also caused confusion, by spreading false information about the vaccine.

One group of students who said that they thought they had a greater ability to gather information actually reported getting less information about the vaccine. They also avoided getting the vaccine – perhaps because they thought they could get it whenever it was necessary. However, as a vaccine is a preventative measure rather than treatment, this kind of assumption could have harmful consequences.

“...To improve risk communication about the H1N1 vaccine among the college student population, it is perhaps worthwhile to stress the difference between simple awareness and actual knowledge,” Dr. Yang wrote in the paper.

She said that it's important to have the information delivered by a trustworthy source, present it in a way that is easy to follow, and use evidence to support the argument to get the vaccine.

The study was published in the journal Risk Analysis in October 2012.  

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Review Date: 
October 1, 2012