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VCU team receives National Science Foundation grant to investigate vaccine inequity and acceptance

With expertise in behavior science, math and other fields, the MAVEN project aims to boost public health in the post-pandemic era.

Nurse giving vaccine shot to patient By providing data on vaccine inequities and acceptance, VCU researchers hope to contribute to the global effort to predict and mitigate the impacts of current and future pandemics. (Getty Images)

By Sabrina Janesick

An interdisciplinary team of Virginia Commonwealth University scientists and mathematicians has been awarded more than $660,000 by the National Science Foundation to study vaccine coverage and identify drivers of vaccine uptake in the United States.

By providing data on vaccine inequities and acceptance, particularly among minority and rural populations, the researchers hope to contribute to the global effort to predict and mitigate the impacts of current and future pandemics. The MAVEN project – Multidisciplinary Analysis of Vaccination Games for Equity – will gather data on multiple vaccines, including influenza, human papillomavirus, COVID-19 and monkeypox, in order to develop a comprehensive understanding of vaccine uptake.

The MAVEN project is led by Dewey Taylor, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics at VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences. The team includes faculty from varied departments: Sunny Jung Kim, Ph.D., an assistant professor of health behavior and policy at VCU’s School of Population Health; Gabriela León-Pérez, Ph.D., an assistant professor of sociology; Oyita Udiani, Ph.D., an assistant professor of math; Jan Rychtar, Ph.D., a professor of math; Oleg Korenok, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Economics at VCU’s School of Business, and Daniel Stephenson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of economics.

Taylor is an expert in mathematical modeling and conducts research on neglected tropical diseases. Her work has primarily focused on understanding how diseases affect communities with extremely limited resources that have been traditionally understudied and overlooked in public health research.

“Through this project, we aim to better understand the structural, social and individual factors that influence vaccine uptake. This research will also examine how heterogeneity in our communities affect perceptions and trends around vaccination, as well as how individual behaviors related to vaccines impact disease dynamics,” said Taylor. “This is a large multidisciplinary project and I am excited to work with such a diverse team of researchers.”

Kim, who has a background in disease prevention and vaccine uptake research, led a study investigating misinformation on social media about the HPV vaccine and health communication strategies to counter the misinformation. She said understanding why people do or don’t take vaccines can help policymakers and health professionals communicate about vaccines with the public.

“The data can inform us on multilevel individual and structural factors that explain vaccine uptake and vaccine refusal across heterogeneous populations, and why some people have distrust for vaccines,” she said.

With its interdisciplinary team of researchers, the MAVEN project will combine expertise from mathematical epidemiology and social and behavioral sciences, using multiple data sources to develop a model to estimate people’s vaccine preferences. Once the model is created, researchers will be able to conduct both retrospective and prospective calculations about vaccine acceptance and hesitance.

“We will utilize multiple behavioral prediction models and game theory to understand the elements involved in decision-making,” Kim said.

The outcomes of the MAVEN project will serve a twofold purpose: helping public health organizations to promote vaccines and serving as a basis for future research, particularly for developing targeted interventions to increase vaccine acceptance and build trust among vulnerable populations.

“I am very excited to have this opportunity,” Kim said, “not only in terms of research but also the implications of the findings for policy and outreach efforts for vaccine distribution as well as patient education opportunities – all of which can help reduce existing racial and ethnic disparities in vaccination uptake rates.”