Barbers, artists help defy vaccine myths for people of color

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Wallace Wilson, top, cuts the hair of James McRae, Friday, April 9, 2021, in Hyattsville, Md. Wilson is a member of the Health Advocates In Reach & Research (HAIR) program, which helps barbers and hair stylists to get certified to talk to community members about health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, a team of certified barbers have been providing factual information to customers about vaccines, a topic that historically has not been trusted by members of black communities because of the health abuse the race has endured over the years. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

SAN DIEGO – In a Washington, D.C., suburb, Black and Latino barbers are busting myths about the coronavirus vaccine while clipping hair.

Across 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.

And in San Diego, former refugees, Latinos and Black activists initially hired by health officials as contact tracers are calling back the people they reached about COVID-19 exposure to talk about the shots.

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 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 co-founded Creative Frontiers to make comic books fighting Islamic extremism.

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 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.