COVID misinformation is leading to vaccine hesitancy for other childhood diseases.
In the NYT mag article, The Anti-Vaccine Movement's New Frontier, Moises Velasquez-Manoff highlights the following:
Two years of doubt planted by disinformation campaigns is causing parents to question other science as well.
There's an "erosion of confidence in medical expertise generally."
Pediatricians in the past nine months are seeing parents of already vaccinated children hesitant to update vaccines and complete booster series.
Disinformation sites, like Robert Kennedy's Children's Health Defense website, has reach that occasionally outstrips that of news outlets (Shout out to my alma mater here):
"Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media, whose CoVaxxy Project follows how vaccine-related content is shared on Twitter, has found that the organization’s vaccine-related posts — these might falsely claim that thousands of people have died from being vaccinated, for example, or that the risks of Covid-19 boosters outweigh the benefits — are frequently shared more widely than vaccine-related items from CNN, NPR and the Centers for Disease Control. In some weeks, the vaccine-related content of the Children’s Health Defense was shared more widely than that of The New York Times or The Washington Post."
While I can’t say I’m surprised about any of this, I am deeply alarmed.
As the daughter of a polio survivor, I’m only one generation away from the life threatening disease that cast its shadow over my father's life. His death at 47, only a few years older than me now, is at least loosely tied to his battle with polio.
My father, pictured at center, with a left arm that dangled at his side since surviving polio as a young child.
Eradication of disease through vaccination is a miracle. But it's one that my generation of parents takes for granted.
In place of gratitude for childhood vaccines, parents are responding with apathy or even apprehension
For the most part, parents today have been privileged to worry about colds and flus instead of the diseases that once regularly killed and paralyzed children.
Instead of realizing what we have, we’re now at risk of having growing numbers of parents turn a blind eye and instead be swayed by misinformation and disinformation campaigns.
Some of this can be sourced back to social media but not entirely. I started becoming more aware of vaccine hesitancy around 2010 when I launched a healthy food blog. Acquaintances would approach me with assumptions that since I was "natural" it must also mean I didn't vaccinate my kids. I doubt anyone would conclude that now, but being a foodie was more rare in my community back in the days of ubiquitous trans fat.
I brought my concerns and marketing ideas to my kids' pediatrician, who had just joined Facebook. I've been working in healthcare marketing ever since. I saw the potential then for social media to be a bullhorn for medical experts who could manage to drop the jargon and instead be social.
This is even more true now than it was then. These days we need every expert voice to do their part.
It won't be easy, but this looming public health issue is one we can solve before we get to numbers that could be below herd immunity. It's going to take a societal-wide effort.
Limit the spread of disinformation
If misinformation and disinformation were harder to find, fewer people on the fence would fall down the rabbit hole. It's not that we can eradicate this content entirely, but fewer people are willing to crawl into the dark corners of the internet than they are to read a blog link right from their mainstream social media channel of choice.
The NYT magazine author writes:
"The Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit headquartered in Washington, published a report in March last year titled “The Disinformation Dozen.” It estimated that around two-thirds of all anti-vaccine content on Facebook and Twitter comes from just 12 sources, including Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense."
Facebook disputes these numbers. But even if the stats are worse, it's still clear that we need to tackle the spread of inaccurate information on social media.
There's more that social media channels can do to limit this information. And certainly the fine print that a post may be inaccurate is like a welcome sign to someone starting to feel skeptical about science.
Amazon too is a massive disseminator of books with disinformation. I'm not advocating for bans on books, but it's hard to imagine my local bookstore of the 90s displaying some pseudo science parenting books just as prominently as What to Expect When You're Expecting.
More listening to parents with vaccine hesitancy
There isn't one movement of skeptics, especially these days when more parents who would never consider themselves "anti-vax" are asking their pediatricians for more information about vaccine schedules and background. There's little time to give these parents the information they seek in a well visit or in a quick sick visit.
A lot of pediatricians have had a policy to turn away parents who refuse to vaccinate. This makes sense when it puts vulnerable patients at risk in pediatricians' waiting rooms. But it means that these parents all end up in an echo chamber where they pass along more misinformation at a pediatrician or alternative practitioner who IS willing to have them. Or worse, like some friends I have, who aren't taking their kids to any doctors right now.
We figured out in COVID how to separate patients so they don't spread germs at doctors' offices. What if vaccine hesitant parents had more time to get their questions answered? And what if instead of sending them away, they were invited to some kind of community parlor meeting?
I first heard about the idea of community parlor meetings over vaccine hesitancy back in 2019 when news of a measles outbreak broke. That and a nefarious pamphlet about vaccines prompted Orthodox Jewish nurses to launch their own pamphlet and program to educate community members with all the cultural sensitivity and background that group needed.
Listening goes a long way. I left my daughter's first pediatrician because he didn't listen to my concerns about breastfeeding. Stakes are a lot higher when parents leave a practice because they didn't feel heard regarding vaccines.
More trusted good voices in the arena
The pandemic hasn't been a boon only for pseudoscience. I've seen hundreds of healthcare experts and organizations show up online with exponentially more content. The CMO at a regional hospital told me just yesterday that they have a bigger social media audience than any of their regional news channels.
One individual doctor with a blog or a Twitter handle can build an audience of thousands. This is by no means easy for already overworked and burnt out doctors. But many have found building a platform rewarding and worthwhile.
Not every doctor has to build an email list in the tens of thousands, like Dr. Lucy McBride. But practices do need to be accessible and be providing the right information at the right time, the right place. Imagine a web where "Dr. Google" search results were actually from doctors?
People, especially parents, choose a doctor because they trust them. Information from your own trusted doctor carries more weight. An outdated marketing strategy no longer means a potential loss of patients; it means a potential loss of trust and a less informed public.
If you’ve been sitting on the sidelines, thinking other healthcare experts and organizations will speak up, know that there is a whole line up of quacks and nefarious actors using their platform and taking your place.
I don’t have the answer to this crisis. But every day I show up for my clients to write accurate health information that people actually read. This means developing content that is...
Social (interesting, eye-catching, appealing, well designed, well written, etc.)
Search engine optimized
Driven by data
Found on the channels where the audience spends time
Most marketing is part sales, part retention, part employee engagement.
In healthcare, marketing communications is also a public service.
We need every voice to get in the arena.
Let's talk if your marketing team needs support scaling your content. Whether it's blogs, ebooks, email sequences or social media, we write healthcare content people read. Schedule an inquiry call.