Intended for healthcare professionals

Rapid response to:


Vaccination: “fake news” on social media may be harming UK uptake, report warns

BMJ 2019; 364 doi: (Published 23 January 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;364:l365

Rapid Response:

Treating people with herd contempt

There are a range of astonishing assumptions here, both in the report [1] and Gareth Iacobucci's report of the report [2]:

"A separate survey of 2000 UK adults found that a fear of side
effects was the most common reason for choosing not to
vaccinate, across a range of vaccines including MMR, HPV,
and flu"

"But it also found a fairly low understanding of the key concepts of vaccination, as over a quarter of UK adults surveyed (28%;
560) incorrectly believed that you can have too many vaccinations."

It is understandable that MSD should be concerned about the less than optimal favourable coverage of its products on social media, but we might ask since when did vaccines not have side effects? (You can even read about some of them in the product inserts if you ever get to read them, and they can be both common and serious.) It may be one of the "key concepts of vaccination" that you cannot have too many vaccines (irrespective of which or how they have been tested), but where is the scientific validation? If people are not supposed to ask questions of the profession in such extraordinary circumstances, when are they?

It is evident that retaining any critical faculties at all could be interpreted in the current atmosphere as a "thought-crime". In my experience given the almost hysterical public health hype that surrounds vaccines that what people generally exchange on social media accounts is genuine information from public documents, package inserts, scientific studies etc.: it is generally serious, well informed and responsible - if by this stage often angry. Citizens - many highly educated, even some of them doctors - are being treated with contempt by our governments and public health systems.

The pamphlet confuses public relations with science. Naturally it cites the Cochrane Review of HPV vaccines (p.18) but not the criticisms which have for instance appeared in both BMJ and BMJ EBM [3,4] or the furore in Cochrane [5]. In our Brave New World ordinary citizens are not to be trusted - they are not apparently even going to be permitted to publicly talk about or question product safety.

[1] Royal Society for Public Health. 'Moving the needle: promoting vaccination uptake across the life course' Dec 2018,

[2] Gareth Iacobucci, 'Vaccination: “fake news” on social media may be harming UK uptake, report warns',
BMJ 2019; 364 doi: (Published 23 January 2019)

[3] Jørgensen L, Gøtzsche PC, Jefferson T.'The Cochrane HPV vaccine review was incomplete and ignored important evidence of bias', BMJ Evid Based Med. 2018 Oct;23(5):165-168. doi: 10.1136/bmjebm-2018-111012. Epub 2018 Jul 27

[4] Lars Jørgensen, Peter Doshi, Peter Gøtzsche, Tom Jefferson, 'Challenges of independent assessment of potential harms of HPV vaccines', BMJ 2018; 362 doi: (Published 24 September 2018)

[5] Nigel Hawkes, 'Cochrane director’s expulsion results in four board members resigning', BMJ 2018; 362 doi: (Published 17 September 2018)

Competing interests: I have a Facebook account. I made two submissions (published) to the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sports Committee inquiry into Fake News.

24 January 2019
John Stone
UK Editor
London N22