With COVID-19 vaccines more readily available than ever, there remains vaccine hesitancy in diverse communities across metropolitan Houston and beyond. Why such vaccine hesitancy exists is now the business of the University of Houston's HEALTH Center for Addictions Research and Cancer Prevention in partnership with the Houston Health Department. With a grant of $711,773 from the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, the UH center seeks to discover what's driving these disparities and to develop a culturally responsive vaccine education program to increase the reach, access and uptake of SARS-CoV-2 vaccine in underserved minority communities.
Black adults in Texas represent 13% of the population and more than 18% of the health care workforce, but only about 7% of vaccine recipients. These trends persist in metropolitan Houston, where minorities make up more than 70% of the population.
"The proposed research recognizes that systemic racism is real, medical mistrust by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities is earned, and the best way to accelerate scientific breakthroughs regarding SARS-CoV-2 vaccine uptake in BIPOC communities is to include them in the research process," said Ezemenari Obasi, director of UH's HEALTH (Helping Everyone Achieve a Lifetime of Health) Research Institute (HRI).
"The omission of some population segments as investigators and participants in research significantly contributes to the generation and maintenance of health disparities, because less is known about factors affecting health among underrepresented groups and how to address them in culturally-informed ways," he added.
Obasi is forming ethnically diverse focus groups on the Black and Latinx experience to include community members, community-based organizations, faith-based organizations, and health care providers who will share their stories and insights about this public health crisis. The results will inspire tailored messaging to address specific needs and concerns and the creation of a culturally responsive vaccine education program.
"We really want to get 'under the hood' and allow the community to voice why they're hesitant rather than have a label slapped onto them," said Obasi, who thinks the reasons will not be as obvious as might currently be believed.
"Historically there's been an oversimplification of why people might not want to be vaccinated and many point to historical medical mistreatment like the Tuskegee experiment. We want to uncover whether it's more nuanced than that and understand the role that recent mixed messaging from politicians has contributed to hesitancy," said Obasi.
With a clear understanding of the issues, prevention and intervention methods will be created.
Obasi is collaborating with UH colleagues Dr. Brian Reed, College of Medicine; Tzuan Chen and Isabel Martinez Leal, both of HRI.