Communicating Science-Based Messages on Vaccines

By Anderson, Tatum | Bulletin of the World Health Organization, October 2017 | Go to article overview

Communicating Science-Based Messages on Vaccines


Anderson, Tatum, Bulletin of the World Health Organization


The public health response to false information about vaccines can sometimes backfire. A series of workshops aims to help public health officials in Europe meet the challenge. Tatum Anderson reports.

Italy is one of several countries in the European Region of the World Health Organization (WHO) where outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases have occurred in recent years.

Since July 2016, there have been 35 measles deaths in the region: 31 in Romania, two in Italy (along with 4044 measles cases), one death in Germany and one in Portugal.

"Recent measles outbreaks and deaths in Italy are due to the decrease in measles vaccination coverage over the last few years," according to Dr Giovanni Rezza, Director of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Italy's National Institute of Health.

Some parents are afraid to get their kids vaccinated because of misleading media reports, court cases related to alleged adverse reactions, scaremongering by anti-vaccination campaigners and lingering--albeit unfounded--fears about autism links, he says.

"The media often sets up a false opposition between public health officials and anti-vaccination campaigners, rather than conveying a clear message that there is an overwhelming scientific consensus in favour of nationally recommended vaccines," Rezza says.

Part of the response to falling vaccination coverage in Italy has been the creation of a health information website called VaccinarSi--meaning "yes to vaccines" in 2013 by the Italian Society of Hygiene, and the health minister and other senior health officials give regular media interviews to reinforce this positive message.

This year, the ministry introduced legislation making 10 vaccinations polio, tetanus, diphtheria, hepatitis B, pertussis, Haemophilus influenza type B, measles, mumps, rubella and varicella--a school-entry requirement across Italy. Four further vaccines--for meningitis C, meningitis B, pneumonia and rotavirus--are strongly recommended by the new legislation.

Last year, the Italian government intervened to stop Vaxxed, an anti-vaccination film by Andrew Wakefield, author of a fraudulent 1998 paper falsely linking the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism, from being shown in Italy.

Opposition to vaccines has long existed, ever since the first anti-vaccination leagues sprang up to oppose compulsory smallpox inoculation in the 19th century. While the arguments of vaccine opponents have not changed over time, their ability to reach large audiences with their messages has increased with the advent of the digital and social media.

One of the greatest challenges for public health authorities is how to respond to today's proliferation of misleading information about vaccines. Studies show that simply correcting myths about vaccines may not be effective and can even backfire.

In a study of 1000 participants in the United States of America (USA) published in the journal Vaccine in January 2015, researchers sought to correct misperceptions that people can catch influenza from the influenza vaccine and, in a study of 1759 participants in the USA published in Pediatrics in April 2014, that the MMR vaccine causes autism.

When the researchers gave participants evidence-based information produced by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refuting these claims, they reduced these misperceptions, but unwittingly increased participants' safety concerns thereby reducing their willingness to come forward or bring their children for vaccination.

Their efforts may have backfired, says Philipp Schmid from the Department of Media and Communication Science at the University of Erfurt in Germany, because repeating myths about the influenza and MMR vaccines can inadvertently reinforce them.

Avoiding the repetition of myths is one of the lessons that he and his colleagues are teaching in a series of workshops organized by WHO's Regional Office for Europe. …

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