The survey results contrast with other research that showed a substantial increase in vaccine hesitancy in the Australian population between August last year and January.
The Australian National University’s Centre for Social Research and Methods is conducting a longitudinal study of more than 3500 Australians, and last week released a report that revealed 21 per cent of Australians in January said they “probably or definitely” would not get a coronavirus vaccine, a steady rise on the 12 per cent of people who held that view in August.
Murdoch Children’s Research Institute group leader of vaccine uptake Margie Danchin, who is leading a study of vaccine hesitancy among Australian healthcare workers, said public sentiment fluctuated.
“Last year, the sentiment [correlated with] how much community transmission there was, and we found the willingness to accept a vaccine was quite high initially in April and May and then dropped again in June, just before the second wave,” Associate Professor Danchin said.
“We know vaccine sentiment fluctuates, and we know vaccine hesitancy increases as the rollout of the vaccination program comes closer.”
Associate professor of political science Aaron Martin, who led the research at the University of Melbourne, said he was most surprised by the support for government policy, including public health interventions such as lockdowns.
Eighty-four percent of respondents in the University of Melbourne study said they had high levels of trust in information about COVID-19 coming from the federal and state governments, while 87 per cent trusted Australia’s Chief Medical Officer.
“Part of what stuck out to me is that we hear a lot in the media about outliers or opponents and there is certainly a non-trivial section of the public who have those views, but I think, if you look at a majority consensus, people are generally supportive of what governments have done,” he said.
Despite millions of Australians feeling hesitant about the vaccine, immunisation experts say uptake levels will likely rise in Australia, in line with a trend observed in Europe, including in France and Italy, where public vaccine acceptance has been steadily increasing.
“Research has shown that confidence tends to rise in the countries that have started to roll out the vaccine if there’s not an access problem,” University of Sydney vaccine expert Julie Leask said.
But Professor Leask warned public confidence in the vaccine was likely to have been bruised temporarily following revelations on Wednesday that a doctor who gave two elderly patients four times the correct dosage of COVID-19 vaccine had not been trained to administer the injection.
She said the government had managed the situation well by disclosing the incident and being upfront with the public.
“Had they not told people what happened, and they found out some other way, then that would have been a disaster for trust,” she said.
University of South Australia professor of biostatistics and epidemiology Adrian Esterman said the federal government would struggle to make the vaccine compulsory.
“People need to be assured that the vaccine is safe and effective, and we are looking at more than 20 per cent of people who aren’t reassured at the moment and that is where the issue lies,” Professor Esterman said.
Although high rates of vaccine hesitancy have been reported among healthcare workers abroad – reports from the United States suggested this figure was about 30 per cent – researchers believe the issue is not as severe in Australia.
Associate Professor Danchin and her team have begun surveying Australian healthcare workers and expect to receive results within the next three weeks.
“I believe healthcare workers are more willing to accept the vaccine than the general population, but we do need to understand their specific concerns and information needs,” she said.
Hesitancy is defined by the World Health Organisation as a “delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccination services”. Historically, it has been linked to outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, including measles and whooping cough.
Asked whether Australia could reach herd immunity if less than 95 per cent of the country became immunised against the virus, Professor Leask said it was still possible, but depended on many variables.
“We don’t know the herd immunity threshold yet and people who are trying to speculate on that are not helping,” she said.
“We also don’t know the effectiveness of the vaccines yet and how they all work together. It also will depend on our border strategy. We may not need to get 95 per cent to have a reasonable level of control if we have strategies that limit spread from the border.”
Once Australia reopens its borders for international travel, higher vaccination rates will be needed to control the spread of the coronavirus, she said.
Early research suggests the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which will likely be used to vaccinate the vast majority of the population, reduces transmission of the virus.
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Melissa Cunningham is The Age’s health reporter.
Sumeyya is a state political reporter for The Age.