What can public health communicators learn from the autism/vaccine debate?

Jan 06

By now, many of you have probably read about an editorial in the latest issue of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) which asserts that British researcher Andrew Wakefield’s study linking autism to childhood vaccines is an “elaborate fraud.”  According to BMJ, Wakefield used “bogus data” to support claims that launched a “worldwide scare over the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine.”

Following the release of Wakefield’s study in 1998, concerned parents worldwide began to refuse the MMR vaccine for their children, fearful that their sons or daughters may eventually develop autism.  Over the years, celebrity autism advocates such as Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy celebrated Dr. Wakefield’s study as “historic” and encouraged parents to question the need to vaccinate their children.

The National Autism Association also openly defends and supports Wakefield’s work.

These advocates’ efforts eventually contributed to a drastic increase in measles cases nationwide.  According to the CDC, more cases of measles were reported in the U.S. in 2008 than in any other year since 1997.

But are misinformed autism advocates really the only ones responsible for the jump in measles cases?

The BMJ editorial goes as far as blaming the media, researchers and the U.S. government for the outbreak of anti-vaccine sentiment:

“… the damage to public health continues, fueled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals and the medical profession.”

In this statement, BMJ appears to imply that the public health community should have worked more vigorously to correct the potentially dangerous misinformation creeping through the Internet and public airways.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who is to blame.  Wakefield’s study gained sufficient media and public attention to impact vaccine rates, and if the BMJ editorial is accurate, measles cases jumped as a result.

Public health communicators should use the autism/vaccine debate as a case study in how to combat bad science in the public arena. Because nowhere is misinformation more dangerous than in the public health sphere.

What do you think? How can public health communicators learn from this case study?  Post your thoughts in the comment box below.

To find out more about the history of the autism/vaccine debate, check out Darryl Cunningham’s clever cartoon storyboard.

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 6th, 2011 at 6:49 pm and is filed under Social Marketing. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “What can public health communicators learn from the autism/vaccine debate?”

  1. Bryan Callahan says:

    Great post, Alex. It raises an interesting strategic communications issue, which is, what are the risks and benefits of confronting or engaging people who spread misinformation? Some organizations shied away from directly confronting the vaccine denialists because they feared free publicity that the debate would produce for proponents of the vaccine/autism link. Perhaps that wasn’t the right approach. One thing that current press coverage should note, however, is that adherence to immunization schedules for children is still impressively high. (It’s adults like us who are harder to reach!) Maybe a social norming campaign — one that highlights the huge proportion of parents who do immunize their children — would help to further strengthen adherence rates.

  2. DR-Guest says:


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