I was asked to comment on this article for SBS today but unfortunately I hadn’t read the paper before the deadline so they asked someone else.

Never mind, these things happen with journalism and tight deadlines but rather than waste the time I spent reading it, I thought I may as well bash out a quick and dirty blog post so you too can learn about the new researchs!

Published today in The Lancet Infectious Disease: “New global surveillance tool detects and monitors public concerns about vaccines in real time and could help boost vaccine uptake.”

This paper is from a group of anthropologists who are members of the Vaccine Confidence Project (which is partly funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) who have been tasked with establishing a global surveillance system to detect emerging public opinions about vaccines.

(Proptip: to see more about the research team who did this work be sure to watch Jabbed at 20:30 on SBS, Sunday May 26th).

The reason this project was established was to monitor the spread of spurious information which can have significant impacts on public health, particularly public confidence in vaccines.

The authors cite the Wakefield MMR disaster as an example, the impact of which we are only really seeing now as measles sweeps through the UK in an epidemic largely affecting kids in the age group of 10 – 14 ie those who missed their MMR under Wakefield’s 1998 scaremongering.

The authors cite several factors that propelled the unsinkable rubber duck of vaccines cause autism into the public consciousness (and it continues to perpetuate even today), one being Wakefield’s large gob, and also the complictiy and credulity of (some of) the media.

I say “some” because of course it was the media – Brian Deer in fact – who were eventually responsible for revealing Wakefield’s work was a hoax. It’s a bit embarrasssing in fact that it wasn’t science. It also doesn’t help that it took 12 years to officially retract the paper (interestingly, this paper says 4 years in the introduction, which I reckon is wrong).

As an aside, also of interest to me is the claim by many people that The Lancet paper claimed vaccines cause autism – this is patenty untrue. The paper does not make any claims about autism and MMR, it’s claim is the characterisation of a new gastrointestinal disorder in autistic kids. It was at a press conference after the paper was published that Wakefield made the suggestion, the media picked it up and ran with it and here we are, 14 years later with more than 1000 cases of measles in Swansea. Slow clap all involved.

Another blow to public health cited by the authors was the cancellation of the HPV vaccine programme in India following the death of 4 girls (this is also covered in Jabbed). Although it was determined that their deaths had nothing to do with the vaccines, rumour and heresay spread far and wide leading to the suspension of the programme in April 2010. Monitoring of the media during this time revealed 72 percent of reports were negative.

These are two real world examples of the potential risks of allowing the spread of rumours to go unchecked and illustrate the consequences of failing to address legitimate concerns when it comes to vaccines.

Enter a monitoring system that in this study, trawled 10,380 reports from 144 countries extracted from online articles about vaccines, vaccination programmes and vaccine-preventable disease (using Google News, Google Blogs and Moreover Public Health the latter of which is a news aggregator). What the authors found (in general) was 69 percent were positive or neutral and 31 percent were negative.

Of the negative reports, 24 percent were associated with impacts on vaccine programmes and disease outbreaks, 21 pecent with beliefs, awareness and perceptions, 16 percent with vaccine safety and a further 16 percent with vaccine delivery programmes.

Importantly the tool enables researchers to disaggregate the data by country and vaccine type and monitor the evolution of events over time and location in specific regions where vaccine concerns were high. And it means that they can act quickly to dispell rumours and heresay before they cause untold damage to important vaccine programmes.

So, I like this idea for several reasons, one because it will well and truly freak out the more paranoid, conspiracy-mongering anti-vaxers who may realise that even putting alfoil on their computer will no longer protect them.

But also, because as scientists we get blamed for a lot of bad stuff that has happened in the past (see for example thalidomide) so any system that has the potential to pro-actively prevent harm, whether that be caused by real or fictional fears, can’t be a bad thing.

Read the media release here

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