The Dallas Morning News
A NEW WAVE
New wave of advocacy focuses on grassroots efforts to bust myths
of public health advocacy is rapidly replacing mundane public service announcements in the battle to stamp out vaccine disinformation.
SAN DIEGO — In a Washington, D.C., suburb, Black and Latino barbers are busting myths about the coronavirus vaccine while clipping hair.
On the other side of the country, a university researcher in Phoenix teamed up with a company behind comic books fighting Islamic extremism to produce dance-inducing animated stories in Spanish that aim to smash conspiracy theories hindering Latinos from getting inoculated.
A new wave of public health advocacy that is multilingual, culturally sensitive, entertaining and personal is rapidly replacing mundane public service announcements on TV, radio and online in the battle to stamp out vaccine disinformation circulating in communities of color and to get more people vaccinated.
“With the way disinformation is spreading over social media, a stale piece with information to counter that — that doesn’t work anymore,” said Mustafa Hasnain, who cofounded Creative Frontiers to make comic books fighting Islamic extremism.
Lack of trust
The innovative messaging has grown out of urgency: The virus has hit Black and Latino people disproportionately hard, yet their vaccination rates are less than half that of white people.
The Biden administration this month launched a multimillion-dollar promotional campaign targeting communities where vaccine hesitancy is high and asked 275 organizations — from the NAACP to Ciencia Puerto Rico — to spread the word about vaccine safety and effectiveness. One ad is in Spanish and another aimed at Black Americans is narrated by the historian Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Rumors that the vaccines could cause infertility or that the shots could inject a government tracking chip are commonly heard in the Black and Latino communities. They have a long history of facing racism in the health care system, eroding their trust.
“I see a lot of similarities in how violent radicalization takes place and the current bout of disinformation around the pandemic and vaccination,“Hasnain said. “Similar to how radicalization works, there is an echo chamber created where distrust of authority figures is inculcated.”
Hasnain’s company is pressing forward with releasing its latest Spanish-language animation targeting young Latinos. The animated stories are produced with Gilberto Lopez, a researcher and associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Transborder Studies. Lopez said young Latino men are especially reluctant to get vaccinated.
The latest animation is set to hip-hop rhythms and features a know-it-all Uncle Rigo who spouts unfounded claims that a cool female doctor dispels.
“The silver lining of the lessons from the pandemic is this is a chance to reimagine the delivery of health care to our communities,” said Dr. Stephen Thomas, who runs the Maryland Center for Health Equity at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
He works with Black and Latino barbershops and beauty salons to talk about vaccine safety. The program recently licensed three barbers as community health advocates.
“Black barbershops and beauty salons can be places of conspiracy theories that grow and thrive, or places where evidence-based science and referrals are done,” said Thomas, who initially launched the Health Advocates In-reach and Research initiative — or HAIR — to educate people about chronic diseases like diabetes.
At the Shop Hair Spa in Hyattsville, Md., outside Washington, D.C., a colorful box asking, “What is your health question?“is posted next to the prices for cuts. COVID-19 vaccine information is displayed on a red wall behind a salon chair.
Barber Wallace Wilson said he understands people’s reservations about getting vaccinated.
“I’m still skeptical about it, you know, because of the simple fact that I’m an African American male, and when you look at history, we’ve been used as guinea pigs,“Wilson said.
He was referring to a 40year study by the U.S. government that tracked Black men infected with syphilis without treating them so scientists could observe the disease take its course.
Customer James Mcrae shared his skepticism. But Wilson told Mcrae that this time is different because it’s not just the U.S. government vaccinating people, it’s the world, and all people needs to do their part.
“I want everybody to be safe,“Wilson said.