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Volume 14, Number 12

Consider some trends in vaccinations and viral illnesses. Influenza vaccination coverage in the United States in the 2017-18 flu season was 37.1%, 6.2% lower than in the 2016-17 season. It is estimated that approximately 80,000 persons in the US died of influenza or its complications during this particularly bad flu season. In Europe, there have been over 50,000 cases of measles in 2018, which is nearly double the cases in Africa during the same time period, even though Africa has a number of developing countries where routine immunization programs are not as readily available. These statistics come from Dr. Heidi J. Larson, a Professor of Anthropology, Risk and Decision Science, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Director of the Vaccine Confidence Project.

Vaccines are arguably one of the most effective public health initiatives worldwide. The World Health Organization estimates that since 2000, over 21 million deaths have been prevented just from measles vaccines. Globally, however, there has been an erosion of confidence in vaccination coverage, due to health beliefs, politics, and anxiety.  Dr. Larson suggests in a recent article in Nature that perhaps the most important risk for a pandemic is a virus that isn’t biological, but rather digital. Viral misinformation on the internet, particularly via social media, has contributed to an emotional contagion that fuels anti-vaccination sentiment.

In 2001, Dr. Roy Baumeister, currently of the University of Queensland, and colleagues published an article in the Review of General Psychology titled, “Bad is Stronger than Good.”  The article reviews the broad research evidence that negative events and information tend to have a stronger emotional and behavioral impact on persons that do positive. Furthermore, negative information tends to be more resistant to disconfirmation. This has clearly been the case with anti-vaccination sentiment, as extensive research indicating the safety and effectiveness of immunizations has been contaminated by some methodologically suspect “science” and affected the views of a sizable minority of persons worldwide — enough to undermine the success of a number of vaccines.

The “confirmation bias” leads persons to selectively attend to information that they already believe to be true. Commercial and political interests can fuel the spread of misinformation. While health and scientific organizations, such as the Vaccine Confidence Project, are themselves using social media to promote the life-saving benefits of numerous vaccines, there is no vaccine for viral misinformation.

Aside from organizational efforts to promote the benefits of vaccines, there may be opportunities for individuals who routinely get recommended vaccines to be vocal about doing so, both in conversation and online. This can be done matter-of-factly (e.g., “I got my flu shot today”) without judgment toward others. Because bad is stronger than good, lots of mention of getting vaccines and their benefit is necessary to override the viral misinformation epidemic related to vaccines.


Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.

… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor, Director of Research, and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.




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