In 1998, a supposedly scientific (later retracted) paper falsely linked MMR vaccination to developmental problems in children. Panic ensued. Vaccination rates dropped in several EU countries. Measles returned.
The paper would later prove to have been junk science but a great deal of damage was done to public confidence in vaccines. Outbreaks of measles followed due to the reduced level of protection against the disease.
The impact continues today with the Somali community in the US targeted with anti-vaccine messages designed to undermine confidence in the MMR vaccine. And it worked.
Rumours and the damage done
The UK was the epicentre of the original MMR scare. But France had its own crisis of confidence in the hepatitis B vaccine in the 1990s, while Denmark and Ireland are currently dealing with a sharp drop in HPV vaccination rates due to unfounded myths circulating online.
The safety claims at the heart of each of these crises have been thoroughly investigated by scientists and doctors. None of the concerns have stood up to scientific scrutiny.
Yet the damage is already done: when trust is strained, it can prove difficult to rebuild.
‘Immunising’ against crises of confidence
Is there a way to reduce the impact of confidence-shattering episodes such as those sparked by the MMR and HPV crises?
Experts studying vaccination and trust believe there are. By building trust, monitoring public sentiment and responding with tried and tested communication tips, health authorities can address concerns about vaccines before they eventually develop into a fully-blown public health crisis.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Office for Europe has published a wealth of guides on how to deal with precisely these kinds of situations. Their Vaccination and Trust Library contains valuable, evidence-based information on establishing and restoring confidence in vaccines and vaccination.
It features communication tips and practical advice on dealing with journalists:
- Four immediate steps when responding to an event that may erode trust
- The questions journalists always ask in a crisis
- Strategies used by journalists during interviews (and how to respond)
- How to write a press release
For health professionals, scientists, communication experts, policymakers – and anyone else who may have a role in responding to a potential crisis – this new library is an invaluable resource.
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