Quick Take: Can Scientists’ Passion Counter Anti-Vaxxers’ Pins?

“The anti-vaccine messages of today threaten to detrimentally influence public opinion, vaccination policy and public health. Do we continue to bombard the scientific community with more literature or lambaste the anti-vaccinating public by citing more data? Perhaps we start writing toward a lay-audience in popular press with the passion and the narrative that accompanies the anti-vaccination messages and we engage anti-vaccination groups and inquire about their proposed alternatives.” — from Neal Goldstein, PhD, Michael LeVasseur and Jonathan Purtle, DrPH, of Drexel’s Dornsife School of Public Health.


Like most causes in the 21st century, anti-vaccination has a strong presence online in social media.

A study published in Vaccine magazine by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University looking into the way vaccines are portrayed on Pinterest found that roughly 74 percent of the 800 posts (or pins) on Pinterest in the study’s sample were anti-vaccine. Just 18 percent were classified as pro-vaccine. The remaining pins in the sample were classified as undetermined or neutral.

Such a gap in public perception is of concern to public health researchers like Goldstein, who just graduated with his doctorate from the Dornsife School of Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics; LeVasseur, a doctoral candidate in the department; and Purtle, assistant professor of the school’s Department of Health Management and Policy.

“Why is there this disconnect between what the science says and what we actually do?” they wrote. “We know that vaccines are some of the most safe and effective interventions of the 20th century and don’t present a financial burden. We also know who under-vaccinate and reasons why. As three young researchers, we feel that the onus falls partly on us, and therefore we wish to have a dialog about how we can most effectively advocate.”

As such, the three Drexel researchers believe the answer lies not in producing more facts and studies for scholarly journals, but making a direct and emotional appeal to the general public.

In addition to speaking out with the passion and narrative appeal that many anti-vaccination posts have, the co-authors suggest taking a similar approach to their forebears from the 1980s during the AIDS epidemic.

“Through successful activist organizations, like ACT-UP, policy was influenced and scientists broke ranks with the establishment to join in,” they said. “This resulted in discovery of the virus, first generation anti-retroviral drugs and mitigating further stigma.”

Action — not just scholarly articles — is necessary to turn the tide of public opinion before the anti-vaccination proponents become more dug-in.

“It is not enough to only make the claim, ‘We need to do better.’ We know this.” the Drexel researchers wrote. “We should be asking the question, ‘How do we do better?’”

Media interested in talking with the Drexel team can contact Frank Otto at 215.571.4244 or fmo26@drexel.edu.

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