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Study Examines Facebook User Comments on Vaccines

OCT 11, 2016 | EINAV KEET
Updated 12/5/2016

The Internet is loaded with peer-reviewed, science-based data—as well as plenty of misinformation—regarding vaccines. Researchers recently studied how pro- and anti-vaccination opinions on Facebook were expressed to understand how people discuss and spread these views.
In their new paper, A Comparison of Language Use in Pro- and Anti-Vaccination Comments in Response to a High Profile Facebook Post, available through online-early access to the journal Vaccine, researchers from the University of South Wales in Sydney, Australia, and La Sierra University in Riverside, California, examined prominent Facebook posts about childhood vaccination. Their findings shed light on opposing stances on vaccines at a time when Internet use has made misinformation on vaccination readily available, causing heightened concern about the safety of child immunization shots.
“Prevalent in our study and others are references to distrust in government and conspiratorial thinking,” say study authors Kate Faasse, PhD, and Leslie R. Martin, PhD. “This presents a challenge for health officials to communicate accurate and evidence-based information about vaccination—because they are portrayed by anti-vaccination viewpoints as part of the problem.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sets vaccination policy recommendations, which go to state legislatures and public health officials in state health departments to make and enforce each state’s vaccine laws. According to the CDC, more than 9 in 10 children in the United States have received the recommended vaccination dosages for measles-mumps-rubella, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, and varicella. And in general, parents of today’s young children in the developed world have never had to live through an epidemic, such as the deadly smallpox, cholera, or polio outbreaks of the past, in large part due to the vaccines now widely available to prevent these diseases. However, each state also has its own policies allowing for medical exemptions that excuse a child from vaccination if their doctor says it would be detrimental to the child’s health. Most states also allow religious and philosophical exemptions, which a parent can exercise if vaccination goes against their family’s personal beliefs. A median of 1.7% of American children are not immunized due to exemptions, and in some states such as Maine, Vermont, Wisconsin, Colorado, Idaho, and Oregon, 4% or more of children enrolled in kindergarten have been exempted from receiving one or more vaccinations.
Unvaccinated individuals tend to cluster, says the CDC, which puts communities at risk for outbreaks, such as the measles outbreak that occurred in 2015 among unvaccinated children who visited an amusement park. The unvaccinated benefit from the “herd immunity” that occurs when community members are immunized for contagious diseases helps impart immunity to the un-immunized members and their communities at large, resulting in fewer disease outbreaks. Pockets of unvaccinated children, though, can become a reminder about just how vulnerable we still are to contagious diseases.

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