I-Generation and the Use of Social Media to Help Dispel Misconceptions about Vaccines

by Harshal Shet

Public Health Commentaries by Students is the result of a classroom writing assignment by Dr. Erika Martin at the University at Albany-SUNY who required students to write a 1,000 to 1,200 word commentary on a health-related topic of interest, explaining some of the complexities of solving the problem and offering recommendations. Four commentaries have been selected for publication on JPHMP Direct. Other public health educators may find Dr. Martin’s process helpful in developing their own course materials. Learn more: “Designing University Writing Assignments to Foster Interest in Public Health Issues and Build Professional Skills.”

Vaccines are one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine and are attributed with greatly reducing the burden of infectious diseases. Vaccines are a safe way to avoid getting a potentially life-threatening disease, and most health professionals consider immunizations an important part of overall health, along with a daily diet and exercise regimen. Prior to vaccines, human beings did not have many methods to prevent or treat life-threatening diseases. In the past century, vaccines have helped lower illness and death from nine preventable diseases, including measles, mumps, rubella, influenza, meningococcal disease, tuberculosis, etc.

Figure created with Canva, adapted from Freeman, S., Quillin, K., Allison, L., Black, M., Podgorski, G., Taylor, E, and Carmichael, J. (2017). Biological Science (6th ed.). Figure 48.17. page 1024. Hoboken, NJ: Pearson.

Despite the numerous benefits of vaccines, a few common misconceptions have negatively influenced their impact on public health. For example, there has been an increase in measles rates due to a decline in Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccination rates ; in a multi-state survey of parents of school age children, 25.2% of parents distrusted the government, which increased odds of distrusting vaccine information acquired. Current public health communication between government/healthcare providers and parents have not been as effective as desired because parents are not as encouraged to vaccinate their children.

The declining vaccination rate is also correlated to a misconception that MMR vaccine can lead to autism and that individuals might get the targeted disease. Public health and government agencies are actively promoting the significance of vaccines. Misconceptions can be addressed by stating core facts that are easy to memorize, explicit warnings that warn people of false information, alternative explanations that address knowledge gaps, graphics that provide a clear meaning, and careful language.

In addition to traditional public health campaigns via print, radio, and TV, local health departments and organizations such as the CDC are sharing more public service announcements online via websites, blogs, and social media channels. Unfortunately, the internet is equally rife with inaccurate information, and herein lies part of the problem.

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Most scientists and medical professionals agree that there is no connection between the MMR vaccines and autism or any other neurodevelopmental disorders. The notion that vaccines may cause autism gained popularity in an article by Andrew Wakefield, titled “MMR Vaccination and Autism,”  published in a British journal in 1998. This article was later retracted from the journal due to limited merit and it cannot be cited as a credible source; later Wakefield lost his license. The New York State Department of Health confirms that vaccines are proven to be safe and there is no link to developmental disorders, including autism.

There have been recent measles outbreaks due to a reduced rate of vaccinations. In April 2017, a 25-month-old child was hospitalized  in Minnesota for a suspected measles case and another child was hospitalized the next day with similar symptoms. The Minnesota Department of Health confirmed that these two cases were measles and other children from the same childcare center contracted measles as well. By the end of May 2017, there were 65 confirmed measles cases. The low MMR vaccination rates in the community caused the outbreak to spread quickly and lead to higher susceptibility. As a result, thousands of people were exposed to measles.

In 2016, there was another measles outbreak in Shelby County, Tennessee; this community had a high vaccination rate and no documented measles cases for more than ten years. However, an unvaccinated traveler had measles and spread the disease, proving that some communities are still at an increased risk of outbreaks. It is better for people to be safe and receive vaccines to prevent diseases.

A plethora of scientific literature suggests that vaccinations greatly reduce disease, disability, death, and inequity around the world. Vaccines provide both personal protection as well as protection for the entire population. The measles vaccine helps people avoid getting measles and protects them from several complications including dysentery, bacterial pneumonia, keratomalacia, and malnutrition. In addition, vaccines can extend life expectancy and empower people to be healthier and happier. Vaccines also have a profound impact on the overall health of populations. Herd Immunity occurs when enough people are vaccinated against a certain disease that germs become less likely to spread from person to person. Such immunity also protects people who cannot get vaccinated due to serious allergies or individuals with weakened immune systems. Vaccines are particularly important to prevent diseases that are no longer in the United States as they stop the spread of disease coming from travelers, resulting in minimal chances of an outbreak.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) works in close partnership with a wide array of public- and private-sector agencies and institutions to shape global health policies and help support immunization programs. There are so many social media platforms that people of all ages utilize and follow daily. Social Media can play an important role in reframing the narrative around the public health benefits of immunizations, which can lead to better overall health and understanding. Recently CDC’s Global Immunization Division has developed social media messages during World Immunization Week 2018 with priority messages on specific diseases to increase visibility on targeted audiences and vaccination. It is also important to combat misinformation and ensure the public has an accurate and clear understanding of the benefits of vaccines.

iGeneration is the generation following millennials, typically individuals born between the mid-1990s to mid-2000s, who have grown up with technology and can influence change through social media. Recently, teens from Parkland, Florida influenced a movement sparked through social media calling for lawmakers and government to change the laws on gun regulation. This movement encouraged millions of people to support the teens and call for a change and influenced lawmakers’ consideration. In the case of vaccines, the CDC and other public health agencies use social media to provide people with credible health information. There are different social media tools utilized to reinforce and personalize messages so that more people can be reached and engaged. Health departments make their social media messages effective through personalization of individual needs, presentation of relevant topics, and participation of the public. When these health departments post images, they try to make them easy to share for everyone to see and understand.

iGeneration can “like” the posts of public health agencies such as vaccine infographics highlighting the benefits of receiving a vaccination. All the followers of that person can see the post that is “liked” and share it with their friends and family, thereby increasing its awareness. iGeneration can follow this same approach of social media to encourage more people to sign up for monthly newsletters from health agencies like the CDC to understand vaccines and other important health information. Spreading an impactful positive message about the benefits of vaccines can result in a population that is healthier and safer for everyone now and for future generations.

Related reading in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice:*

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Celebrate National Immunization Awareness Month by sharing evidence-based research just as University at Albany student Harshal Stet is doing. Read his call to action here: https://wp.me/s7l72S-10322

Harshal Shet

Harshal Shet is a sophomore at the University at Albany, State University of New York- Honors College. He is majoring in public health and minoring in economics and biology. His career aspiration is to be a pediatrician. He enjoys volunteering in the hospital and working with children during camp and tutoring. He is a member of the Presidential Honors Society, National Society of Leadership and Success, National Society of Collegiate Scholars, Global Medical Brigades, UAlbany Pre-Medical Club, and the Dean’s List.