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Framework offers doctors method to counter fears about vaccines

"If we dismiss anybody who has an opposing view, we're giving up an opportunity to understand them and come to a common ground," researcher Brian Primack said of countering vaccine fears on social media.

By Tauren Dyson
Researchers say anti-vaccine sentiments are spread on social media, especially Facebook, depending on one of four concerns they identified. File Photo by JaysonPhotography/Shutterstock
Researchers say anti-vaccine sentiments are spread on social media, especially Facebook, depending on one of four concerns they identified. File Photo by JaysonPhotography/Shutterstock

March 21 (UPI) -- While social media is often used to push anti-vaccine messages, it can also help doctors set the record straight on the safety of vaccines.

Pediatricians are using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms to host conversations with parents to better inform them on the safety of vaccinations, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Vaccine.

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"If we dismiss anybody who has an opposing view, we're giving up an opportunity to understand them and come to a common ground," Brian Primack, director of the University of Pittsburgh's media center and study senior author, said in a news release. "That's what our research is about. We want to understand vaccine-hesitant parents in order to give clinicians the opportunity to optimally and respectfully communicate with them about the importance of immunization."

About 70 percent of children between 19 to 35 months get all of their recommended immunizations, according to the study. This year alone, hundreds of children in states around the country have contracted measles.

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Two decades ago, health officials declared the disease eliminated in the United States, and that effort was attributed to high vaccination rates. The researchers say vaccines have "prevented more than 100 million cases of serious childhood contagious diseases."

But recent anti-vaccine messages claiming vaccines cause autism have dialed back those gains.

In 2017, Kids Plus Pediatrics, a Pittsburgh-based pediatric practice, loaded a video on its Facebook page where its doctors promoted the use of vaccines to prevent cancer from HPV. Almost a month later, anti-vaccination groups rushed to the page and posted thousands of comments discouraging the practice of vaccinating children.

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The researchers looked over the comments, most of which were posted by mothers, and noticed four groups that emerged. Those groups consisted of people who: lacked trust in the scientific community, favored homeopathic remedies instead of chemical vaccines, viewed vaccines as unsafe or immoral or suggested that the government and pharmaceutical companies kept information about vaccines secret.

"The presence of these distinct subgroups cautions against a blanket approach to public health messages that encourage vaccination," said Beth Hoffman, a researcher at the Penn State University media center and study author. "For example, telling someone in the 'trust' subgroup that vaccines don't cause autism may alienate them because that isn't their concern to begin with. Instead, it may be more effective to find common ground and deliver tailored messages related to trust and the perception mandatory vaccination threatens their ability to make decisions for their child."

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For their part, Facebook has also recently stepped up efforts to fight against anti-vaccine messages by countering them with alternative health information. Other platforms have attempted, with varying degrees of success, to ban anti-vaccine messages completely.

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Although the researchers found the comments disappointing, they're glad the study allowed other clinicians to get more insight on the mindset of anti-vaccine activists.

"We're focused on keeping kids healthy and preventing disease whenever possible. In this age of social media disinformation, evidence-based recommendations from a trusted health care provider are more important than ever," said Todd Wolynn, chief executive officer of Kids Plus Pediatrics and study co-author. "We're thrilled to play such a key role in research that empowers pediatricians worldwide to meet parents where they are, appreciate their concerns, and communicate the incredible power and value of vaccination."

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