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Disease Area Public health, Infectious diseases

Getting the Vaccine Message Across

The far-reaching and, in some cases, potentially lethal after-effects of Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent 1998 paper that linked the MMR vaccine to autism are still being felt to this day. Some parents still opt not to vaccinate their children because of a fear that vaccines are harmful. It has been described as “perhaps the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years” (1), and researchers are still working to reverse the changes it caused in the public perception of vaccines.

Publicizing science that combats the fictions being spread appears to be one solution – but the methods used to do so appear to be having an unintended effect; a recent survey has found that repeating false information with the aim of refuting it may actually spread misconceptions about vaccines (2).

After surveying their existing opinions, the study authors gave new vaccine information to Scottish and Italian students. One group received a booklet that focused on vaccine myths versus facts. A second group was given tables that compared the dangers posed by measles, mumps and rubella with the dangers posed by the vaccine. A third group were shown photographs of unvaccinated children with diseases along with descriptions of the symptoms, and a warning about the dangers of not vaccinating. And final control group received unrelated fact sheets on preventing medical errors and safer healthcare.

All three approaches seem like logical ways to tackle the vaccination challenge – but which ones worked best? The research team found that two strategies were actually counter-productive and reinforced false beliefs rather than dispelling them when compared with the control group. Specifically, the myths versus facts leaflets created stronger beliefs in the vaccine-autism link. The fear-based technique – exposing people to images of sick children – also increased misperceptions, and was linked to the strongest beliefs that vaccines caused side effects. The use of tables caused less damage, but also was not effective in changing people’s minds about vaccination.

So how can we effectively combat vaccine myths? The authors suggest tailored and frequent interventions to increase the chance that the correct message is spread and understood within the population. However, they acknowledge that a “golden strategy” does not exist, and stated, “the independent and relative impact of each determinant of vaccination choice is complex and context-specific, varying across time, place, and vaccines.”

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  1. DK Flaherty, “The vaccine-autism connection: a public health crisis caused by unethical medical practices and fraudulent science”, Ann Pharmacother, 45, 1302–1304 (2011). PMID: 21917556.
  2. S Pluviano et al., “Misinformation lingers in memory: Failure of three pro-vaccination strategies”, PLoS One, 12, e0181640 (2017). PMID: 28749996.
About the Author
Roisin McGuigan

I have an extensive academic background in the life sciences, having studied forensic biology and human medical genetics in my time at Strathclyde and Glasgow Universities. My research, data presentation and bioinformatics skills plus my ‘wet lab’ experience have been a superb grounding for my role as a deputy editor at Texere Publishing. The job allows me to utilize my hard-learned academic skills and experience in my current position within an exciting and contemporary publishing company.

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