…see the related article “Addressing Vaccine Hesitancy,” by report co-chairs Barry R. Bloom of the Harvard School of Public Health, Edgar Marcuse of the University of Washington and Seth Mnookin of MIT.
The beginning of this misinformation problem, researchers say, dates back to 1998, when a now-discredited scientific paper was published in Britain linking vaccines to autism, a link that was proven entirely false and even labeled “fraudulent.” A number of activists and some celebrities have adopted prominent anti-vaccine positions, and media and entertainment outlets have provided a platform for some of their views.
Despite the importance of this issue, little research has been done on how newer forms of technology and communication, including social media or video-sharing sites, influence health decision-making. And there are basic questions about the effectiveness of traditional public health campaigns. One of the most important studies to date is a 2014 paper in the journal Pediatrics, “Effective Messages in Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial.” The researchers — Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College, Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter, Sean Richey of Georgia State University and Gary L. Freed of the University of Michigan — analyzed the results of a Web-based national survey of nearly 1,800 parents. After asking respondents about their own family health situations and beliefs, researchers then tested common public health communications strategies to promote vaccination: “(1) correcting misinformation, (2) presenting information on disease risks, (3) using dramatic narratives, or (4) displaying visuals to make those risks more salient or accessible.”
The study’s findings include:
- The data indicate that “pro-vaccine messages do not always work as intended and that the effectiveness of those messages may vary depending on parental attitudes toward vaccines.” In fact, there was “little evidence that messages emphasizing the risks of vaccine-preventable diseases were effective in promoting vaccination intent.”
- Further, the data show that a “dramatic narrative about measles and images of sick children” actually ended up increasing misperceptions about MMR.
- The study’s conclusion was unequivocal regarding traditional messaging: “None of the pro-vaccine messages created by public health authorities increased intent to vaccinate with MMR among a nationally representative sample of parents who have children age 17 years or younger at home. Corrective information reduced misperceptions about the vaccine/autism link but nonetheless decreased intent to vaccinate among parents who had the least favorable attitudes toward vaccines.”
By the way, Werner Troesken at the University of Pittsburgh will be publishing a new book on how American freedoms have allowed infectious diseases to spread, or so sounds the description. It is from University of Chicago press, due out in May.