Combating the Perpetuation of Vaccine Misinformation: Health Communicators Have a Role and a Responsibility

“Health communication is the science and art of using communication to advance the health and well-being of people and populations.” (Society for Health Communication)

The World Health Organization (WHO) named vaccine hesitancy, the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite available vaccines, one of the top 10 global health threats for 2019. The reasons why people choose not to vaccinate can be complex, but as we have heard reported for several months around the current outbreak of measles, which had been declared eliminated from the US in 2000, the perpetuation of vaccine misinformation has reached a tipping point.

A recent call to action on the issue from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states, “Though robust scientific research demonstrates that vaccines are safe, effective and life-saving, inaccurate and misleading content about vaccines proliferates online. As parents increasingly turn to social media to gather information and form opinions about their children’s health, the consequences of inaccurate information play out offline.”

As health communicators, we not only have the opportunity to play a critical role in addressing this public health crisis, we have an absolute responsibility. What can we as health communicators, especially those of us working in the vaccination space, do to help stem the tide of vaccination misinformation across social media and beyond?

  • Plan, plan, and plan some more. A 2015 study on Health Communication and Vaccine Hesitancy found that, “…communication can be an effective tool, if utilized in a carefully planned and integrated strategy, to influence the behaviors of populations on a number of health issues, including vaccine hesitancy.” A thorough, thoughtful strategic issues management approach is critical in the vaccination space. Take the time to fully assess the environment in which your campaign or outreach strategy will be implemented and be sure to include formative research as a key starting point. Be proactive in considering the “what if’s” and plan your communications tactics and messages accordingly.
  • Translate the science. As Paul Offit, MD, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia often states, science doesn’t speak for itself. As noted in his most recent book, Bad Advice, “Scientists are often unable to package their insights into the neat narratives that the public requires.” As health communicators, we are by nature, communicators of science. As such, our role must include effectively and accurately translating complex scientific, regulatory, and medical information into clear, plain-language content that our audiences can comprehend.
  • Use trusted sources to deliver the message. Even when translated clearly and accurately, science on its own is not enough. The audience must trust the source delivering that message—be that an entity or an expert. According to WHO, “…health workers, especially those in communities, remain the most trusted advisor and influencer of vaccination decisions.” As health communicators, we have a responsibility to engage and include clinicians and health workers in our strategic planning and to provide them with clear, science-based, credible information to deliver to their patients.
  • Be mindful of the use of imagery as a communications tool. Images used in health communication have long been shown to affect perspectives and attitudes towards health issues, including vaccination. Nearly one in eight images included in vaccine-related online news coverage contained features which may promote negative sentiments, such as fear or mistrust about vaccination. This according to a study published in Pediatric News, which also concludes that there is a great need for images that communicate encouraging information about vaccination and the protection vaccines provide. As health communicators, we must be mindful to advocate for, produce, and utilize images using careful consideration of the potential impact on public health.
  • Be respectful of the audience. Granted, as a parent especially, it can be difficult to empathize with those who choose not to vaccinate. But as a health communicator, empathy and understanding are imperative. We need look no further than to the example of 18-year-old Ethan Lindenberger, who recently testified before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions about his decision to catch up on missed vaccinations against the wishes of his mother, who chose not to vaccinate Ethan or his siblings. “A necessary clarification must be made when discussing this misinformation: anti-vaccine individuals do not root their opinions in malice, but rather a true concern for themselves and other people,” he testified. “Anti-vaccine parents and individuals are in no way evil… Using the love, affection, and care of a parent for their children to push an agenda and create false distress is shameful. The sources which spread misinformation should be the primary concern of the American people.”

While recent steps to manage content from Facebook, Pinterest, Amazon, and other platforms are meaningful, the sea change cannot and will not occur without clear, accurate, effective communication and the dedicated commitment of health communicators to accept the responsibility and the critical role we can play in combating the perpetuation of vaccine misinformation.

Katherine Nicol is a Senior Vice President at Hager Sharp, a member of the Society for Health Communication, and sits on the National HPV Vaccination Roundtable.