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'Phone hasn't stopped': Dutch doctor's vaccine helpline is overwhelmed

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By Laura Llach
A nurse administers the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccine.
A nurse administers the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccine.   -   Copyright  Emilio Morenatti/AP Photo

When vaccines against COVID-19 were first made available, Dutch doctor Robin Peeters set out to combat mounting misinformation.

He did it in two ways.

The first one was to don his white medical coat and wander around the markets of Rotterdam to answer any questions people might have about the vaccine.

And usually, after a short chat to assuage their concerns most people would acquiesce to get vaccinated on the spot.

But that wasn't going nearly far enough, so Peeters, who works at the Erasmus University Medical Centre in Rotterdam, set up a hotline exclusively for questions related to the vaccine.

"It is clear that there was a need on the part of society because from minute one the phone hasn't stopped ringing," Peeters told Euronews.

The 'Twijfeltelefoon' (Vaccine hotline) service first launched in Rotterdam on 23 November and has since spread to other university centres in Amsterdam, Utrecht and Maastricht, among other cities.

Since then, they have received an average of 1,000 calls per day and the volunteers -- most of whom are medical students -- are overwhelmed.

To answer callers' questions, they have a database with medical information, where they record all the questions they receive and write down the answers to the most frequently asked ones.

In addition, for more specific information, they can consult their universities' network of medical experts, from gynaecologists to allergists.

"Our aim is not to convince people to take the vaccine, but simply to inform them. The decision whether or not to take the vaccine is up to the individual. We are not there to put pressure on them, we just want to inform them about vaccines and the latest medical knowledge," Peeters said. "We just want to fight against the misinformation that is circulating on the internet," he added.

'The anti-vaccine people don't call'

Peeters explained that for the most part, the calls are from people who are worried about getting vaccinated, have a lot of questions and need to talk to a professional in order to make the decision.

"Most people have genuine questions that need to be taken seriously," he said. "Almost everyone who calls us has serious questions that need to be answered."

These tend to be about doubts about how the vaccine will affect their migraine, whether it is safe to be vaccinated when they are already taking medication for diabetes and kidney failure, how it will affect their pregnancy, allergies, side effects. They usually discuss their own personal medical situation and condition.

The most common questions, Peeters flagged, are about pregnancy and fertility, and about possible allergic reactions.

"They just want to know if it is safe to get the vaccine in their situation and they need a doctor to give them this information," he said.

"Contrary to popular belief, anti-vaccine people don't call this hotline. We have found that many more people have medical concerns than are reluctant to get the vaccine," Peeters told Euronews.

And if they do get an antivaccine caller on the other end of the line, they try to hang up as soon as possible — the students are trained only to deal with medical issues.