Vaccine misinformation can be as viral as a disease itself, researchers from the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois say. They point to the slow uptake of the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine — despite its availability and demonstrated safety and efficacy for over ten years — as an example of the damage false and unsubstantiated claims can do.
HPV is a viral infection that is responsible for the majority of cervical and other cancers in the United States. It affects both men and women. Other countries such as Australia have used aggressive vaccine mandates that have resulted in the virtual eradication of cervical cancer in that country, but in the United States uptake of the vaccine has been slow.
The research team, headed by Assistant Professor Jessie Chin of the Adaptive Cognition and Interaction Design Lab (ACTION) at UI, looked at Twitter content related to the HPV vaccine and catalogued the varying beliefs and attitudes related to the HPV vaccine the posts conveyed.
Misleading claims were far more attention-getting than fact-based information. They perpetuated the idea that the vaccine causes reproductive or nervous system harm or even death, claims which have proven to be false.
“If we can understand the contents of these misconceptions, we can craft more effective and targeted health messaging, which directly addresses and alleviates the concerns found in misconceptions about various public health topics,” researcher, Tre Tomaszewski, said in a statement.
Tomaszewski calls the cascade of false and misleading information about vaccines and other public health topics an “infodemic” and argues that it is only by identifying the reasons people believe misinformation in the first place that more effective health messaging can be crafted and disseminated to “inoculate” people against misinformation. “If we can target root causes — reasons people believe misinformation in the first place — through methods akin to those we devised, health messaging can provide valid information prior to the exposure of misinformation.”
Using a combination of natural language processing and machine learning technology to catalogue Twitter content that perpetuated hesitancy or disinformation related to the HPV vaccine, the team found valid claims about the vaccine included phrases like “cancer” (because of the vaccine’s cancer-preventing abilities) and “effective”.
Misleading claims were far more attention-getting than fact-based claims. They tended to be fear-based and perpetuated ideas that the vaccine causes reproductive or nervous system harm or even death, claims which have proved to be false.
Vaccine hesitancy has been a hot topic lately as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on. While a majority of American adults have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, millions more remain skeptical, unsure or outright against getting a shot themselves.
If you have concerns about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, you owe it to yourself, any sexual partners and your family to talk to your healthcare provider or another trusted source of medical information.
The study is published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.