This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
Most people in the Netherlands want to get vaccinated – about 90 percent, according to figures from the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment. This number changes a lot from country to country, with over 80 percent of the population being pro-vaccine in the UK, Brazil, China and Mexico, compared to just 42 percent in Russia.
Those who aren’t willing to get vaccinated are often treated as a monolithic group of anti-vax conspiracy theorists, angry at Bill Gates for making us all infertile. And sure, plenty of those massively misinformed people do exist. But within that group, there are also those who don’t want to be vaccinated for religious reasons, or who are struggling with other, less far-fetched fears – like trypanophobia, or the fear of needles.
Phobias surrounding needles can encompass both the fear of the needle itself and of medical procedures involving injections. It might seem trivial, but trypanophobia can manifest in very concrete and sometimes difficult ways for people who have it. Cold sweats, heart palpitations, faintness – none of these symptoms make it any easier for someone who’s already freaked out by the whole ordeal to go get the jab.
Timo*, 29, is one of these people. For now, getting vaccinated is out of the question for him. “It’s not necessarily the pain of the injection, but the idea of the needle going into your body – it just feels very unnatural,” he said. “Even talking about it, I can already feel my legs starting to shake.”
The fear of needles is irrational, and isn’t dissipated by people saying things like, “It’ll be quick,” or, “It’s just a small jab.” According to a 2019 meta analysis of 119 studies, the phobia is especially common among children, and tends to decrease with age. The analysis estimated that between 20 to 50 percent of children have some fear of needles, with the number decreasing to 20 to 30 percent for young adults.
Not everyone who fears needles is refusing to get vaccinated – it’s probably a much smaller percentage of that group whose phobias are even more intense than the average. A recently published study estimated that, in the UK, up to 10 percent of people refusing vaccination could be doing so because they fear needles. Neuroscientist Dr. Elisabeth Huis in ‘t Veld from Tilburg University thinks that figure is at about 20 percent in the Netherlands.
“Some people reluctantly drag themselves to a vaccination centre and can’t go through with it,” Huis in ‘t Veld said. “The short waiting period before getting the shot can be disastrous – your anxiety and stress levels go through the roof, and once you realise that, it’s usually already too late.”
Huis in ‘t Veld thinks the phobia becomes less prevalent with age because people outgrow it, or simply find techniques that allow them to cope with it better. It’s also possible they might not be able to admit to it as openly as children do.
But in some patients, the fear actually intensifies with age. This often happens when a person inherited the phobia from a parent, or when they have a wide range of phobias, with needles being just one of their fears. It can also be the result of actual negative experiences with injections. “Your body then learns that jabs aren’t pleasant, which makes you think things will be even worse the next time,” said Huis in ‘t Veld.
As a child, Timo wasn’t particularly fond of needles, but his phobia worsened when he ended up in the emergency room aged 16 to have a wound stitched up. Although the area had been anaesthetised, he still felt the sensation of the needle going into his skin. This experience freaked him out and fed into bigger anxieties that still affect him today.
Figure skater Jorieke van Wiggen, 26, has been afraid of needles for as long as she can remember. When she was 20, she was hospitalised in Vietnam for two weeks with glandular fever. She informed the hospital staff she might react a bit violently to the IV, but that she was fine otherwise. Four nurses ended up having to hold her down to insert the needle. “I’ve had nightmares about needles my whole life, and I’ve always been afraid of getting very sick one day,” she said.
But van Wiggen managed to muster the courage to get her vaccine, and shared her experience on her Instagram stories to raise awareness about her phobia. “It’s so weird – one moment you feel fine, the next you realise that you’re about to have a mental breakdown,” she said.
Overall, van Wiggen found the vaccine injection less scary than a blood test. “Blood tests usually involve needles in your forearm, where the skin is very thin, while vaccines are usually injected in your muscles in places where you can’t see it very well,” she said. Besides, she saw this as something she simply had to do. “I don’t want to have to tell my grandchildren that grandma refused to get vaccinated in 2021,” she said.
Van Wiggen’s story was shared on social media, and many people ended up messaging her, which made her feel less alone. Huis in ’t Veld confirmed that many people have a hard time admitting they’re scared of the jab because they fear people will think they’re using their phobia as an excuse not to get vaccinated.
Scientists are currently working hard to invent vaccine options that don’t require injections. Multiple projects – including tablets, aerosols and orally administered drops – are under development, although it’s not clear when they’ll be ready, and some projects have already been abandoned because initial testing showed they generated a weaker immune response in recipients. But if these products are eventually successful, they could also help distribute the vaccine to places without refrigeration, since they would administrable at room temperature.
In the meantime, there are a few things you can do if you want to get your jab as soon as possible, but are afraid of needles. If you have time, you should consider discussing these fears in therapy. But if you’re about to get your jab, Huis in ’t Veld said it’s best to do something relaxing in the run-up to your appointment, whatever that means to you. She developed a game app you can play before getting vaccinated, which is relaxing and also informs you about your physical health. She also recommends EMLA patches, which contain anaesthetics that numb your skin locally.
You should make it clear to the people working at the vaccine centre that you have a fear of needles. Lying down and having a chat for a couple of minutes can make the experience more seamless, and if you’ve gone through a non-traumatic injection, your phobia may appear less overpowering.
“I tried to tell myself, ‘Just empty your mind, don't fight your feelings, because they’ll be there anyway. It’s OK if you panic a little’,’ said Van Wiggen, who will get her second jab soon. “I also told myself, ‘It will be over in a minute – the only thing you need to do is try to not die’.”
*Timo asked to remain anonymous, citing the heated debate around vaccinations.