Why are Internet anti-vaccine messages dangerous

July 19, 2011 By Karene Booker

Evidence has long shown routine vaccines to be safe and effective, but a growing community of critics still claims that they pose more danger than the diseases they prevent. A Google search of "vaccine," for example, produces links to government and science-based vaccine websites on the same screen as official-sounding anti-vaccination links.


Given the success of vaccines in preventing a long list of diseases, why is opposition to vaccination gaining hold? Decision-making expert Valerie Reyna contends that it's because anti-vaccination messages tell a compelling story compared to official sources, and they meet people's need to understand rare adverse outcomes.

"In the era of Web 2.0, the contagion of ideas, transmitted rapidly through social media, is as concerning as the contagion of diseases because of their power to reduce vaccination rates, leaving populations vulnerable to preventable death and disability," said Reyna, professor of human development in the College of and a co-director of the Center for and Decision Research.

This spring, the Centers for Disease Control reported that the United States is experiencing the highest number of cases in more than a decade. According to the alert, measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000 due to a high vaccination rate. This could change should decline.

Reyna presented her model of vaccine decisions at the University of Erfurt, Germany, in May to an international meeting of scientists examining the implications of the Internet and social media such as on public health messages about vaccination.

Being informed about vaccines involves more than having the facts. According Reyna's research, people primarily rely on the meaning or "gist" of a situation rather than details to make judgments and decisions.

"Gist is simple, but not simple-minded," Reyna said. "It involves connecting the dots -- building on background knowledge, life experience and values. When people lack background knowledge, they tend to rely on anecdotes, personal experience and the little information that is widely available."

Since most people don't understand how vaccines work, the Internet, which facilitates users across the globe to sharing personal experiences and ideas about health care, fills the vacuum.

According to Reyna, anti-vaccination messages are expected when people don't understand how vaccination works and when adverse events that are difficult to explain appear to be connected. Autism, for example, is diagnosed in children during the same time period that children receive a battery of vaccinations. Despite research to the contrary, anti-vaccination messages have claimed vaccines are to blame. Official sites, on the other hand, tend not to provide a convincing narrative story line that helps people connect the dots.

Under these circumstances, how do people approach the decision to vaccinate? In Reyna's model, the decision to get a flu shot, for example, could be a seen as a decision between feeling OK (by not getting the vaccine) or taking a chance on not feeling OK (due to a vaccine side effect). Without better information, most people would choose not to get a vaccine.

"Public health messages need to be designed so that the correct 'gist' pops out," Reyna said, "because the drive to extract meaning, combined with widespread lack of about how vaccination works, is fertile ground for misleading explanations to take root."

Related Stories

Recommended for you

High-fat diet in pregnancy can cause mental health problems in offspring

July 21, 2017
A high-fat diet not only creates health problems for expectant mothers, but new research in an animal model suggests it alters the development of the brain and endocrine system of their offspring and has a long-term impact ...

To combat teen smoking, health experts recommend R ratings for movies that depict tobacco use

July 21, 2017
Public health experts have an unusual suggestion for reducing teen smoking: Give just about any movie that depicts tobacco use an automatic R rating.

Why sugary drinks and protein-rich meals don't go well together

July 20, 2017
Having a sugar-sweetened drink with a high-protein meal may negatively affect energy balance, alter food preferences and cause the body to store more fat, according to a study published in the open access journal BMC Nutrition.

Opioids and obesity, not 'despair deaths,' raising mortality rates for white Americans

July 20, 2017
Drug-related deaths among middle-aged white men increased more than 25-fold between 1980 and 2014, with the bulk of that spike occurring since the mid-1990s when addictive prescription opioids became broadly available, according ...

Aging Americans enjoy longer life, better health when avoiding three risky behaviors

July 20, 2017
We've heard it before from our doctors and other health experts: Keep your weight down, don't smoke and cut back on the alcohol if you want to live longer.

Parents have critical role in preventing teen drinking

July 20, 2017
Fewer teenagers are drinking alcohol but more needs to be done to curb the drinking habits of Australian school students, based on the findings of the latest study by Adelaide researchers.

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

ironjustice
5 / 5 (1) Jul 19, 2011
"People Recently Immunized Against Shingles May Transmit Herpes Zoster"
"People who get vaccinated with the herpes zoster vaccine Zostavax to prevent shingles can shed the virus in their saliva for weeks afterward, according to research presented here at the 69th annual meeting of the American Academy of
Dermatology."
Mindano Iha
not rated yet Aug 05, 2011
Vaccinated people may infect the unvaccinated with the disease through shedding.
Shedding (secondary transmission) is when the live virus that is injected via vaccines, moves through the human body and comes back out in the feces, droplets from the nose, or saliva from the mouth.
Anyone who takes care of the child could potentially contract the disease for some time after that child has received certain live vaccines.
This was a huge problem with the oral polio vaccine, and was one of the reasons why it was taken off the market in the US.It is still used in Africa.

Shedding occurs with many other vaccines including measles (up to 14 days after vaccination), mumps (28 days), chickenpox (transmits zoster), Flumist and Rotavirus.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.