Population Health

September 21, 2022

Spotlight: Kristina Adams Waldorf uses social media to combat vaccine hesitancy in pregnancy

Image of Kristina Adams WaldorfAs a professor and researcher in the University of Washington Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Dr. Kristina Adams Waldorf’s career has centered on studying infectious diseases in pregnant people for more than 20 years. Her extensive research is conducted through the Adams Waldorf Laboratory, which is part of the Center for Reproductive Sciences and the Center for Innate Immunity and Immune Disease at UW. The research in her lab is focused on studying how infections can target placentas to reach the fetus and whether drugs and vaccines can help stop infections and prevents problems such as zika virus induced fetal brain injury.

The spread of COVID-19 in recent years presented a new challenge for Adams Waldorf and her lab. Deeply saddened by the rapid increase in deaths of pregnant people due to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and misinformation, Dr. Adams Waldorf embarked on a new area of research to investigate how social media can be used to dispel myths and inform pregnant individuals about the benefits of COVID-19 vaccination in pregnancy.

“I got tired of seeing vaccine disinformation on social media and not having the tools to fight back. People’s lives are at stake here, and when disinformation spreads virally on social media, it can have real consequences, and vaccine hesitant pregnant women can die,” said Waldorf. “I study a very vulnerable part of the population – pregnant women are at high risk from nearly all infectious diseases and have higher mortality rates from COVID-19 than non-pregnant women. Social media disinformation is particularly terrible for this group as they are more likely to die or have pregnancy complications if they are unvaccinated.”

In working toward solving this growing issue, Adams Waldorf is leading the “One Vax, Two Lives” communication campaign and research project. The team received funding through a Tier 1 Pilot Grant from the UW Population Health Initiative this past winter, which helped them gather qualitative data from pregnant individuals in urban and Latinx populations in partnership with obstetrician-gynecologists to begin developing social media test ads targeted toward vaccine-hesitant individuals.

They recently partnered with the National Black Leadership Commission on Health (NBLCH) to expand the campaign, receiving additional funding through a Tier 2 Pilot Grant from the UW Population Health Initiative. During the surge of the Delta variant of COVID-19 in late summer and early fall of 2021, maternal mortality rates increased, with most deaths linked to unvaccinated pregnant people, despite the availability and prioritization of the vaccine for pregnant people in most states. Pregnant individuals from minority racial and ethnic groups had higher COVID-19 death rates.

“These deaths are leaving behind infants and families that will no longer have their mom. A mother is often the foundation of a family in so many ways. The death of a mother is a sadness that has repercussions for the entire lives of those children and families,” explained Adams Waldorf.

For the pilot grant project, the team plans to leverage data collected through surveys, focus groups and interviews to create social media campaigns focused on stopping misinformation and effectively educating these vulnerable populations on the benefits of vaccination or a booster vaccine in pregnancy. Their methods of collecting qualitative information will cover topics including mistrust of government, where people get health news, what kinds of social media platforms they use, political or religious associations with the vaccine and their level of understanding regarding how the science of the vaccine. Responses to these themes will inform the creation of social media campaigns on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Tik Tok to promote vaccine uptake in pregnant individuals.

“The Tier 1 & 2 PHI grants will help leverage us to study vaccine hesitancy in rural parts of Washington State as well as in Black and Afro-Latinx pregnant populations in the urban East, including New York City, Atlanta, and Tuskegee, Alabama. What we will learn from these projects are which kinds of themes tend to resonate with people in these places and how they react to digital content. We can use this information to better design social media messages,” said Adams Waldorf.

Their team includes master’s students in Communication Leadership, medical students in the UW School of Medicine, faculty from the UW Center for an Informed Public and UW Department of Communication and NBLCH staff to employ a multidisciplinary approach to disseminating vaccine information.

“Fortunately, here at the UW, there are amazing colleagues and partners who have experience in many diverse areas,” Adams Waldorf notes. “Partnering with this incredible team through the UW Communication Leadership program and the UW Center for Informed Public has been amazing. Leveraging a large student workforce has made the project really exciting, highly cost effective, and impactful, because the energy behind what we’re doing is so great. This is truly a team effort.”