Vaccine safety: perceptions and the internet

Gary Finnegan

Gary Finnegan

December 7th, 2010

Gary Finnegan

‘Two interesting studies crossed our desk this morning. One paper shows where internet users get their information on immunisation, and the other reveals a startling trend for choosing alternative treatments over proven vaccines.’

BrainIt seems some older people believe that steamed pears and massage provide more protection against flu viruses than the immunity offered by vaccines.

The study of nine countries – the UK, Greece, South Korea, Canada, China, Nigeria, Turkey, Indonesia and Brazil – finds that some of those who forego the flu jab prefer to be “rubbed with a coin”, to eat cheese or enjoy warm lemon drinks than be vaccinated.

Why are some people choosing such a variety of alternative treatments over the uniform advice of experts?

Perhaps it has something to do with where the public gets information on flu vaccines.

Canadian research tracking the top 20 websites consulted by web users interested in the flu vaccine points to a worrying pattern: Eight of the 20 most popular pages are hosted by the “natural health website” and warn of supposed safety concerns and conspiracies.

Other alternative sites also feature, along with a three government websites and a myth-busting article from New Scientist.

The most frequently visited page is a YouTube clip promoting fish oil and vitamin C as protection against the flu. Second is a video about an American cheerleader who allegedly could only walk backwards after receiving a flu vaccine.

What’s interesting is not just that official sources are being overtaken by YouTube videos and websites selling alternative products, but also that mainstream news media are nowhere to be seen in the top 20.

Little wonder, then, that perceptions of risk are out of line with the scientific consensus.

But can internet rumours be causing vaccine fears?

Vaccine scares long predate the internet so we’re not about to leap from correlation to causation by claiming there is a direct relationship between online information and the growth in alternative therapies at the expense of evidence-based medicine.

However, it’s reasonable to conclude that public opinion is being influenced by online sources of health information – and that traditional sources are declining in popularity.

It seems the top-down approach is losing ground to anecdote and personality-driven (rather than institutional) advice. The old ways have failed and it’s time to rethink how immunisation issues are communicated.

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