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Jill Sederstrom is a Contributing Editor
Lack of trust in vaccines abetted by online articles and past wrongdoing by the drug industry.
Vaccines are a critical component of population health, but a new survey suggests that nearly half of American adults have some doubt about their safety.
An online survey of more than 2,000 U.S. adults conducted for the American Osteopathic Association by The Harris Poll found that 45% of those surveyed expressed some doubt about the safety of vaccines.
According to the survey’s findings, the biggest sources to cause doubt for Americans were online articles (16%), past secrets or wrongdoing by the pharmaceutical industry (16%) and information from medical experts (12%).
“From an evolutionary perspective, humans are primed to pay attention to threats or negative information,” Rachel Shmuts, DO, a perinatal psychiatrist said in a news release of the surprising results. “So it makes sense that people hold onto fears that vaccines are harmful, especially when they believe their children are in danger.”
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While online resources and social media can often be used to spread misinformation, Shmuts said one of the challenges is that social media has not be shown to be effective in countering the public’s existing beliefs.
She called it a confirmation bias–the tendency to trust new information only if it confirms already held beliefs.
“The number of people who believe vaccines are dangerous and refuse to get them is still relatively small. However, online support groups seem to solidify their beliefs, making them less susceptible to influence from their neighbors and real-world communities,” she said.
Earlier this year, Facebook announced it planned to join the effort to reduce vaccine misinformation by reduce the ranking of groups and pages that spread vaccine misinformation in its News Feed and Search, rejecting ads found to contain misinformation and exploring new ways to share educational information about vaccines.
Paul Ehrmann, DO, an osteopathic family physician, agreed with Shmuts that it can often be difficult to change a person’s opinion about vaccines. He believes the most successful path to changing patient behavior may more likely be policy change.
“Beliefs are hard to change especially when they’re based in fear,” he said in the release. “But, being responsible for our patients’ health and the public’s health, we can’t afford to give in to those fears. We must insist on evidence-based medicine.”
The good news is that the survey found that the majority of those surveyed still were in favor of vaccines overall. According to the results, when asked to choose a statement that best represented their feelings, 82% chose a statement in favor of vaccines and only 8% chose a statement expressing serious doubt.
However, Ehrmann cautions that even a small amount of doubt can have a big impact for public health.
“Some diseases, like measles, require as much as 95% of the population to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity,” he said. “Our practice considers itself a steward of public health, so we do not take new patients who refuse to vaccinate.”
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In addition to individual policies at physician offices and regulatory change, Ehrmann said his state of Michigan was also able to significantly improve vaccination rates through a 2017 public information campaign.
Other states across the country are also considering legislative change that would tighten vaccine exemption policies. According to The Hill, 26 states have already introduced bills that would alter how the state views vaccine exemptions for personal or religious reasons.