Vaccine acceptance, hesitancy and refusal in Canada


Volume 42-12, December 1, 2016: Improving vaccination rates


Vaccine acceptance, hesitancy and refusal in Canada: Challenges and potential approaches

Dubé E1*, Bettinger JA2, Fisher WA3, Naus M4, Mahmud SM5, Hilderman T6


1 Institut national de santé publique du Québec, Québec, QC

2 Vaccine Evaluation Center, BC Children’s Hospital, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC

3 Western University, London, ON

4 BC Centre for Disease Control, Vancouver, BC

5 Department of Community Health Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, MB

6 Manitoba Health, Winnipeg, MB


Suggested citation

Dubé E, Bettinger JA, Fisher WA, Naus M, Mahmud SM, Hilderman T. Vaccine acceptance, hesitancy and refusal in Canada: Challenges and potential approaches. Can Comm Dis Rep 2016;42(12):246-51.


“Vaccine hesitancy” is a concept used frequently in vaccination discourse and is challenging previously held perspective that individual vaccination attitudes and behaviours are a simple dichotomy of accept or reject. Given the importance of achieving high vaccine coverage in Canada to avoid vaccine preventable diseases and their consequences, vaccine hesitancy is an important issue that needs to be addressed. This article describes the scope and causes of vaccine hesitancy in Canada and proposes potential approaches to address it.


Vaccination is one of the most effective interventions to prevent life threatening communicable diseases Footnote 1. Vaccination programs have successfully lowered the prevalence of many infectious diseases and, thus in Canada, poliomyelitis and smallpox have virtually disappeared Footnote 2. While the scientific and medical consensus on the benefits of vaccination is clear, an omnipresent negative discourse around the safety and efficacy of vaccines continues to play out in social and traditional media. Because of vaccination success, new generations of Canadians are unaware of the risks of many vaccine preventable diseases and their concerns have shifted to the risks of vaccines Footnote 3.

Vaccine hesitancy is a concept that challenges the previously held perspective that vaccination attitudes and behaviours are a simple dichotomy of “accept” or “reject” Footnote 4Footnote 5,Footnote 6. The World Health Organization (WHO) Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE) Working Group on Vaccine Hesitancy has defined vaccine hesitancy as a “delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccine services” Footnote 7. Vaccine hesitancy is recognized by the WHO as a growing concern worldwide, affecting high, middle and limited resource settings Footnote 8. This definition was adapted to the Canadian context based on the opinions of vaccination experts and health professionals. Vaccine hesitancy in Canada has been defined as “reluctance to receive recommended vaccination because of concerns and doubts about vaccines that may or may not lead to delayed vaccination or refusal of one, many or all vaccines” Footnote 9. This article describes the scope and causes of vaccine hesitancy in Canada and proposes potential approaches to address this issue.

Prevalence of vaccine hesitancy in Canada

Most Canadian parents choose to provide all recommended vaccines to their children and childhood immunization rates are generally high across Canada Footnote 10Footnote 11. According to the results of the last Childhood National Immunization Coverage Survey, only 1.5% of children in Canada have never received a vaccine Footnote 10. However, 70% of the parents surveyed indicated they were concerned about potential side effects from vaccines and 37% believed that a vaccine can cause the same disease it was meant to prevent Footnote 10. Results also showed that there is a small proportion of Canadian parents who believe that alternative health practices, such as homeopathy or chiropractic manipulations, can eliminate the need for vaccines Footnote 10.

Results of other recent surveys conducted in Canada have also shown that a significant proportion of Canadians hold negative views about vaccination Footnote 12Footnote 13Footnote 14Footnote 15. Almost one-third of Canadians believe that parents should be able to decide against vaccination; approximately 20% believe that vaccines are directly linked to autism; and significant numbers of Canadians are not convinced of the benefits of herd immunity (the protection of a population against an infectious disease due to a high proportion of the population being vaccinated against it) Footnote 12Footnote 13Footnote 14Footnote 15. Results of a recent online survey conducted by the Canadian Immunization Research Network (CIRN) indicate that, while only three percent of parents said that their child had not received any vaccines, 19% considered themselves to be vaccine hesitant (Dubé, E, oral presentation, CIRN Annual Meeting, May 19, 2016).

Results of another Canadian study indicate that front line vaccine providers believe that vaccine hesitancy is an increasingly prevalent issue in Canada. The surveyed vaccine providers noted that vaccine hesitancy resulted in increased time spent discussing vaccination issues with concerned patients and extra appointments were needed to accommodate patients who wanted to spread out the vaccines over multiple visits Footnote 9.

Important gaps also exist in the understanding of what factors influence vaccine hesitant individuals’ decision for or against vaccination. Vaccine uptake does not always equal vaccine acceptance. There are situations where the uptake is high and the acceptance is low; for instance when individuals with concerns about the safety and/or effectiveness of vaccines choose to vaccinate only because of the requirements for school entry. In contrast, there are situations where the uptake is low but not due to vaccine hesitancy, such as when individuals believe in the value of getting vaccinated but do not do so because of logistics and accessibility barriers.

It is difficult to gain a clear picture of the prevalence of vaccine hesitancy among Canadians. Vaccine hesitancy varies across time, place and vaccine Footnote 6. There is no standardized tool to measure vaccine hesitancy except for one developed and validated in the United States to predict vaccination decisions of parents of infants based on their attitudes at birth or just after birth Footnote 16. In the absence of standardized indicators and without immunization registries (electronic records of all the public health recommended vaccines an individual has received, the age they received them and the specific lot numbers they came from—for safety surveillance reasons and reporting of adverse event following immunization), it is challenging to measure the scope of vaccine hesitancy in Canada. The results of a recent Ontario study that examined trends in medical and nonmedical immunization exemptions to measles containing vaccines have shown that the overall percentage of students with any exemption classification remained low between 2002-2003 to 2012-2013 (less than 2.5%) Footnote 17. However, religious or conscientious exemptions significantly increased during the study period whereas medical exemptions significantly decreased for students between 7–17 years of age, which indicates an increase in vaccine refusals due to vaccine hesitancy Footnote 17.

What are the causes?

Vaccine hesitancy is complex and multidimensional. Indeed, there is no single cause of vaccine hesitancy because a mix of different factors is at play. Important drivers of vaccine hesitancy include: concern about the safety of vaccines, perception that vaccines are not beneficial, pain and needle fear or distrust of the pharmaceutical industry in the implementation of vaccination programs Footnote 18Footnote 19Footnote 20. Negative and false information about vaccination online and in social media is also an important cause of vaccine hesitancy. Indeed, many studies have suggested that the ubiquity of anti-vaccination content on the Internet contributes to an increase in vaccine hesitancy Footnote 21Footnote 22Footnote 23Footnote 24Footnote 25Footnote 26Footnote 27. Most studies that have examined vaccination related content on websites or social media platforms have shown that the quality of information is highly variable and there is a substantial amount of negative and inaccurate information Footnote 26Footnote 28Footnote 29Footnote 30Footnote 31Footnote 32Footnote 33Footnote 34.

Lack of knowledge about vaccines is frequently identified as a cause of vaccine hesitancy Footnote 9Footnote 35Footnote 36. Studies conducted in different settings, however, have shown that vaccine hesitant parents appear to be well-informed individuals who have considerable interest in health related issues and actively seek information Footnote 37Footnote 38Footnote 39. Indeed, education and socioeconomic status are related to vaccine acceptance, but not in the same way as they are related to health conditions or adherence to public health recommendations. Instead, increased vaccine hesitancy has been associated with both high and low education and high and low socioeconomic status, highlighting the complex array of interrelated factors at play Footnote 19.

Many studies have shown that, like most health behaviours, vaccine behaviours are complex and knowledge is only one of many determinants of vaccination decisions Footnote 18Footnote 35Footnote 40. The three Cs model (confidence, complacency and convenience) outlines three key interrelated causes of vaccine hesitancy. Vaccine confidence is defined as trust in a) the effectiveness and safety of vaccines; b) the system that delivers them, including the reliability and competence of the health services and health professionals and c) the motivations of the policy-makers who decide which vaccines are needed when and where. Vaccine complacency exists where perceived risks of vaccine preventable diseases are low and vaccination is not deemed a necessary preventive action. Complacency about a vaccine or about vaccination in general is influenced by many factors including other life/health responsibilities that may be seen to be more important at that point in time. Vaccine convenience is measured by the extent to which physical availability, affordability and willingness to pay, geographical accessibility, ability to understand (language and health literacy) and appeal of immunization services affects uptake. The quality of the service (real and/or perceived) and the degree to which vaccination services are delivered at a time and place and in the cultural context that are convenient and comfortable also affects the decision to be vaccinated (definitions adapted from MacDonald [6]).

What can be done about it?

Because causes of vaccine hesitancy and determinants of vaccine acceptance are complex and multidimensional, there is no “magic bullet” that can address vaccine hesitancy and enhance vaccine acceptance. A summary of the findings from 15 published literature reviews or meta-analysis of the effectiveness of different interventions to reduce vaccine hesitancy and/or to enhance vaccine acceptance reveals that simply communicating evidence about vaccine safety and efficacy to those who are vaccine hesitant has done little to stem the growth of hesitancy related beliefs and fears Footnote 41. Furthermore, failure to properly and systematically evaluate the relevance and effectiveness of these interventions across the spectrum of vaccine hesitant individuals and specific vaccines makes it difficult to know whether the results can be transferable or suitable for widespread implementation.

Addressing vaccine hesitancy requires strategies that are: tailored to the concerns of the different segments of the population; based on an empirical understanding of the situation; multi-component; ongoing; and pro-active rather than responsive or reactive Footnote 42. Unfortunately, most public health interventions that promote vaccination assume that vaccine hesitancy is due to inadequate knowledge about vaccines (the “knowledge deficit” approach) Footnote 35Footnote 36. However, as discussed previously, the situation is complicated and underlying values and priorities compete with public health recommendations Footnote 43Footnote 44. Changing risk perception (a subjective judgment that people make about the characteristics and severity of a risk) through communication means that messages need to be tailored and targeted to account for the realities of community specific knowledge systems (e.g., adapted to address a vaccine scare peculiar to a specific context or tailored to religious beliefs of a specific community) and the unique information needs and preferences of particular communities Footnote 45Footnote 46. Successful communication is a “two way process, with an equal measure of listening and telling. Understanding the perspectives of the people for whom immunization services are intended, and their engagement with the issue, is as important as the information that experts want to communicate” Footnote 47.

Should the public health community respond to anti-vaccination activists Footnote 48? Leask suggests that adversarial approaches against such activists can in fact enliven the battle and contribute to a false sense that vaccination is a highly contested topic Footnote 49. Most of the time, pro-vaccine advocates should “play the issue, not the opponent” Footnote 49. Efforts should be made to stop them only when anti-vaccination activists’ advice could lead to direct harm.

Future public health vaccine promotion efforts need to embrace Internet and social media possibilities and proactively promote the importance and safety of vaccines rather than adopt a reactive approach to anti-vaccination activists’ arguments Footnote 47Footnote 50Footnote 51. The role of social media in vaccine hesitancy creates a need to develop appropriate strategies for online communication. Such strategies should aim to provide vaccine supportive information, address misinformation published online and correspond to parents’ needs and interests Footnote 29.

Finally, Canadian parents still consider health care providers their most trusted sources of information and advice about vaccination Footnote 11Footnote 18. Health care providers’ recommendations are a major driver of vaccine acceptance Footnote 52Footnote 53Footnote 54. Risk communication about vaccines can be emotional for both parents and health care providers, especially when ideological positions are not compatible Footnote 55. To decrease vaccine hesitancy, health care providers should be well-informed and address parents’ questions clearly Footnote 56. Health care providers should make clear recommendations to vaccinate, but should avoid “overselling” vaccination, as this can also increase hesitancy Footnote 57. Research has shown that people are more drawn toward, and are accepting of, information that shares their worldview Footnote 58Footnote 59. In contrast, when faced with information that contradicts their values, individuals can feel threatened, react defensively and their initial beliefs may become even more strongly held. Messaging that advocates vaccination too strongly may be counterproductive for those who are already hesitant Footnote 60Footnote 61. Many tools and tips exist to help providers in their discussions with vaccine hesitant or vaccine refusing patients Footnote 62Footnote 63Footnote 64Footnote 65. While approaches vary, they share common characteristics, such as the importance of maintaining a trustworthy patient provider relationship, as well as tailoring communication to patients’ specific concerns and doubts (Table 1).

Table 1: Attitudes toward vaccination, with proposed counseling strategiesTable 1 footnote 1
Vaccine position Counseling strategiesTable 1 footnote 2
Vaccine acceptors
  • Encourage / promote resiliency.
  • Explain common side effects and rare adverse events.
  • Use verbal and numeric descriptions of vaccine and disease risks.
Vaccine hesitant
  • Build rapport, accept questions and concerns.
  • Establish honest dialogue, provide risk and benefit information about vaccines and diseases.
  • Use decision aids and other quality information tools.
  • Book another appointment to re-visit discussion, if needed.
Vaccine refusers
  • Avoid debating back and forth about vaccination.
  • Aim to keep discussion brief, but leaving door open to further discussion.
  • Inform about risks of non vaccination.
  • Offer attendance at a special clinicTable 1 footnote 3.


Choosing to vaccinate one’s child remains the norm in Canada and most parents continue to vaccinate their children. However, clusters of un- or under-vaccinated individuals exist and Canadians are at risk of vaccine preventable diseases, as illustrated by recent outbreaks of measles, mumps and pertussis Footnote 67Footnote 68. Vaccine hesitancy is an important issue that must be addressed to maintain high vaccine coverage uniformly through the country and lower the incidence and consequences of vaccine preventable diseases.

Understanding the complex mix of factors that determine individual and collective vaccination behaviour is key to designing effective vaccination policies, programs and targeted interventions. Systematic theory-driven research on the determinants of vaccine acceptance and uptake, overall and by vaccine type at the public, provider and system levels are needed to inform policy and interventions. Evaluation research and randomized trials are also needed to assess the effectiveness of interventions, acquire insights on how they work and identify which approaches are most effective for different groups and populations.


The authors would like to thank Dominique Gagnon for her help in drafting this paper.

Conflict of interest

None. Dr. Mahmud reports past research grants from GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Pfizer and Sanofi Pasteur.

Page details

Date modified: