Twitter could bring better understanding of vaccine refusal patterns

February 25, 2015 by Emily Grebenstein, George Washington University

A team of researchers has developed a new way to understand vaccine refusal by drawing upon an unlikely resource: Twitter.

"People really do tweet about everything, and conversations about vaccines are no exception," said David Broniatowski, assistant professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the George Washington University, who will co-lead the study on refusal patterns. "Parents and patients freely share their fears and concerns about vaccines. While it typically takes years to collect meaningful information about why people refuse vaccines, using surveys and searching Twitter brings immediate results."

The focus on vaccination is particularly timely, with a severe flu season underway and recent well-publicized outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses such as measles in 17 states and the District of Columbia, and mumps among National Hockey League players.

The researchers will combine Twitter analyses with traditional survey techniques to study why people refuse vaccines and how these reasons vary among communities.

"Survey data tend to draw from older, white, rural households, whereas younger, urban minorities are overrepresented on Twitter," said Karen Hilyard, assistant professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia, who also will lead the study. "These two techniques complement each other perfectly."

Mark Dredze, assistant research professor at the Johns Hopkins University, will develop new computer algorithms to support the team's research. "We hope to gain insights into people's reasoning about vaccines by automatically processing millions of Twitter messages," Dr. Dredze said.

Since receiving the grant last month, Drs. Broniatowski, Hilyard, and Dredze have already analyzed millions of tweets to gather information on sentiment toward flu vaccinations. The team identified tweets, geo-located the messages and compared their findings to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System. Their results show that states with a higher number of residents who received the flu shot had a higher number of vaccine-positive messages on Twitter.

"This was really surprising and exciting," Dr. Hilyard said. "It shows that we can get this type of information from Twitter faster, cheaper and more easily. Frankly, it's a game changer when it comes to health surveys, especially as we dig deeper to examine more complex attitudes and beliefs among different demographic groups."

Using social media to reveal thinking about vaccines in real time will help health officials to better respond to the next outbreak, saving lives and keeping people healthy. It will also be a boon for science, helping researchers quickly home in on those tough questions that need more study.

"The dream would be to get ahead of the next outbreak," Dr. Broniatowski said. "How can we take what we learn here and better educate parents about the merits of vaccines and other public health decisions that seem risky? If we could do that, then hopefully we'd be able to prevent the next measles outbreak."

Explore further: Tweets can help track national health trends—and now local ones too

More information: "National and Local Influenza Surveillance through Twitter: An Analysis of the 2012-2013 Influenza Epidemic." DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0083672

Related Stories

Tweets can help track national health trends—and now local ones too

March 21, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—When Twitter recently unveiled a new grant program that will allow outside researchers to mine its stockpile of tweets, the social media site pointed to Johns Hopkins' flu tracking as one example of the ...

Pediatricians turn away unvaccinated patients

February 12, 2015
When the mother of an 18-month-old visited Dr. Charles Goodman's practice last week, he explained that under his new policy, the toddler would have to be immunized to remain a patient.

Vaccine opponents often cluster in communities

January 19, 2015
(HealthDay)—Parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated appear to be clustered in certain areas, a new study suggests.

AMA provides key messages for patients about vaccination

February 9, 2015
(HealthDay)—Physicians should be prepared for questions about the safety of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, according to an article published by the American Medical Association (AMA). The AMA has offered ...

Politicians debate vaccines as US faces measles outbreak

February 4, 2015
US President Barack Obama and American health authorities appealed to the public to vaccinate their children as the country faces an outbreak of measles due to some parents believing vaccines against deadly diseases are dangerous.

Correcting myths about the flu vaccine

December 8, 2014
December 8, 2014 - With health systems in the U.S., U.K., and around the world trying to increase vaccination levels, it is critical to understand how to address vaccine hesitancy and counter myths about vaccine safety. A ...

Recommended for you

E. coli—are we measuring the wrong thing?

April 25, 2018
A sepsis awareness and management programme has demonstrated overall success in terms of improved sepsis detection, but has led to an increase in the number of E. coli blood stream infection cases presented, calling into ...

Malaria study reveals gene variants linked to risk of disease

April 25, 2018
Many people of African heritage are protected against malaria by inheriting a particular version of a gene, a large-scale study has shown.

Commonly prescribed heartburn drug linked to pneumonia in older adults

April 24, 2018
Researchers at the University of Exeter have found a statistical link between pneumonia in older people and a group of medicines commonly used to neutralise stomach acid in people with heartburn or stomach ulcers. Although ...

Kids with rare rapid-aging disease get hope from study drug

April 24, 2018
Children with a rare, incurable disease that causes rapid aging and early death may live longer if treated with an experimental drug first developed for cancer patients, a study suggests.

Early treatment for leg ulcers gets patients back on their feet

April 24, 2018
Treating leg ulcers within two weeks by closing faulty veins improves healing by 12 per cent compared to standard treatment, according to new findings.

Research finds new mechanism that can cause the spread of deadly infection

April 20, 2018
Scientists at the University of Birmingham have discovered a unique mechanism that drives the spread of a deadly infection.

0 comments

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.