|Dr. Heidi Larson|
The internet and its rapid spread of information can magnify and expand a vaccine scare in a short amount of time. Now, the internet can also combat misinformation. Dr. Heidi Larson of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a team of colleagues adapted the HealthMap automated data collection system to track rumors and online sentiments about vaccines on the internet. HealthMap was originally developed to track disease outbreaks.
“The internet has sped up the global spread of unchecked rumors and misinformation about vaccines and can seriously undermine public confidence, leading to low rates of vaccine uptake and even disease outbreaks,” Dr. Larson said.
The surveillance system covers 144 countries and looks at online articles, blogs and reports about vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases. By identifying the first signs of the negative reports, Dr. Larson and her colleagues hope to take preventative action on anti-vaccine sentiment before it becomes a larger problem like the recent measles outbreak in Wales or the polio outbreak in Nigeria that re-introduced polio to 20 countries that had been free of the disease.
The original data collection for the Vaccine Confidence Project took place from May 1, 2011 to April 30, 2012 and identified 10,380 online mentions of human vaccines. 3,209 of these reports, or 31%, were negative and included fears about adverse events and vaccine distrust. The negative reports focused on vaccination programs, disease outbreaks, attitudes about vaccine believes, awareness and perception and vaccine safety.
“Bad news stories damage vaccination programs as much as biological hazards, and these stories evolve over minutes or hours, needing immediate action,” said University of Toronto public health specialists Natasha Crowcroft and Kwame McKenzie. “By the time a detailed specific analysis of vaccine safety issue is completed, the story is no longer newsworthy.”
Ideally, the Vaccine Confidence Project will identify early signs of vaccine misinformation in real time and enable public health officials to act immediately to dispel unfounded fears. “Public health systems need to move beyond passive responses to vaccine safety events towards active preparedness,” Crowcroft and McKenzie continue. “It is important for researchers to discover how to make communities resilient to bad science and interest-driven scare stories.”
By continuing to build public belief and trust in vaccines, health officials can avoid unfortunate situations like the recent measles outbreak and Nigeria’s polio epidemic. HealthMap and other tools available will be beneficial in containing vaccine fear tactics and enhancing education systems.