News

Media induced anti-vaccination sentiment can even affect health workers, vaccine researcher says

BMJ 2012; 344 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e1563 (Published 01 March 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e1563
  1. Bob Roehr
  1. 1Washington, DC

Opposition to vaccination, which has been induced in large part by media scare stories, extends even to healthcare workers, a vaccine expert and co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine told a research meeting this week.

Paul A Offit, professor of vaccinology and paediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, was addressing a meeting in Washington, DC of the American Society for Microbiology, on the subject of biodefence and emerging diseases.

He described the efforts that were needed at his own hospital, the 600 bed Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, to achieve 100% vaccination for seasonal influenza among its 10 000 workers.

Many of the hospital patients were particularly vulnerable because they were too young to have received scheduled vaccinations or had compromised immune function because of treatment for cancer and other diseases.

The voluntary staff vaccination rate was about 35% in 2002 when two 5 year old girls contracted flu while in the hospital and died.

Senior administrators began the push for 100% staff vaccination. They conducted extensive education efforts and offered free vaccination in the hospital wards. The rate nearly doubled. “But we still had about one third of healthcare workers who were choosing not to get vaccinated,” Dr Offit said.

They created a “declaration form” with skull and crossbones that outlined all of the risks the non-vaccinated individuals posed to the young patients, which the staff had to sign. “And still, about 15%” chose not to get vaccinated. On the back of the form they could state why they declined to do so and “it was always things that were not biologically supportable.”

In 2009 those who declined vaccination were given “two weeks of unpaid leave to think about it. If you still didn’t get a vaccine you were fired.” Nine people were fired.

“You can argue that our hospital is a microcosm of something much larger,” Dr Offit said. In the US there are 500 000 people who cannot be vaccinated and depend on others being vaccinated for their protection.

“It is very easy to scare people, it is much harder to unscare them,” he commented.

He believes the media play an important role in the current wave of anti-vaccination sentiment, in large part because they do not understand science.

“They confuse science with scientists.” The former is a process, which often gets it wrong, but it is self correcting. Unfortunately, Dr Offit said, “Some people see that mutability as frightening.”

The media are paralysed by “the journalistic mantra of balance; you tell two sides of the story when only side is supported by the science.”

“Anecdote trumps epidemiology every time,” he explained, illustrating it with an example of celebrity and autism activist Jenny McCarthy on the popular television programme Oprah. She said of her young son, “and then he got that shot [vaccination] and the soul left his eyes.” It is difficult for the dry data of science to compete with that emotional appeal, he said.

Dr Offit called on members of the audience to “stand up for science.” He urged them to contact the media when they saw something that was incorrect. “There is no venue too small,” he said, recalling how he spoke to his daughter’s eighth grade biology class.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;344:e1563

Footnotes