Can mobile phone messages boost vaccination?

Gary Finnegan

Gary Finnegan

October 3rd, 2012

Gary Finnegan

‘Posters, TV advertising, social media websites: with so many ways to communicate about immunisation, sharing the right health information with people who need it – and encouraging them to respond – is tricky. And being heard above the ‘noise’ of radio ads and junk mail is not easy.’

CellphoneHowever, according to an expert in health behaviour, sending reminders by SMS text message could help ensure that young women return for second and third doses of HPV vaccine, or to attend for other vaccination visits.

Dr Suzanne Suggs, head of the BeCHANGE research group at the University of Lugano in Switzerland, says reminders can also help new parents to follow recommended vaccine schedules as part of campaigns to improve maternal and infant health. (Check out

Text messages are a cheap, effective and flexible way to reach people of almost all incomes – even in developing countries – given the widespread access to mobile phones. And it’s not just about sending messages: mobile phones can be used for playing games, taking quizzes and fielding questions from the public.

Doing what works

Speaking to Vaccines Today, Dr Suggs said that public health advocates should borrow the tools used by the advertising and marketing industry and apply them to problems such as immunisation, healthy eating, smoking cessation and underage drinking.

Sometimes information alone is not enough. “Look at smoking: smokers know it’s not good for them but they do it anyway. You must consider the message, the messenger and the motivation.”

By doing ‘social marketing’, she says, we are able to understand what influences behaviour. Then strategies and messages can be tailored to meet the needs and wants of the target audience and can be delivered by a trusted source. This can mean developing answers to specific concerns parents might have about vaccination or rebutting myths about immunisation by engaging with influential members of internet forums. 

Asked whether it is feasible to craft messages which are uniquely generated for individuals Dr Suggs said marketing experts are already way ahead. “Amazon tailors search results based on what you’ve bought in the past and what products you’ve shown an interest in. Why can’t we do the same in public health communication?”

Smarter decisions

A project in the US (I’m Allergic to Stupid Decisions), of which Dr Suggs is part, has used text-messaging to help young people deal with peer pressure which might otherwise lead them to make unhealthy choices. “For example, teenagers at a party can text the word ‘excuse’ to the service and they will receive a text message with a good reason (i.e. an excuse) to leave the party early rather than succumb to pressure to drink alcohol.”

Dr Suggs will speak at the European Health Forum in Gastein next week at a workshop on innovative approaches to improving trust in vaccination. The session is sponsored by MSD and Sanofi Pasteur MSD and will take HPV vaccination as a case study for exploring new ways to reach the public.

A workshop will also be held to discuss life-span immunisation. This debate, sponsored by Pfizer, will look at the potential of vaccination to improve public health through immunisation outside of the paediatric setting.

Social (media) studies

Separately, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) will host a session at the Gastein conference focusing on vaccination and social media.

The event promises to examine how tools such as Twitter and Facebook can raise awareness of the importance of childhood immunisation; and how health professionals can engage with new media; obstacles to boosting measles and rubella elimination.

Speakers will include health professionals, a psychologist and officials with expertise in health policy and communication.

Vaccines Today will be reporting from the European Health Forum in Gastein from October 3 – October 6. Follow us on Twitter @vaccinestoday and use the hashtag #EHFG2012

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