Countering misinformation about flu vaccine is harder than it seems

Many Americans hold beliefs about the flu vaccine that are at odds with the best available scientific evidence. For example, a recent study found that more than two-fifths, or 43 percent, of Americans believe that the seasonal flu vaccine can give us the flu. Scientific research strongly suggests that this is not true. Because modern flu vaccines do not contain a live virus, the shot itself simply cannot get us sick.

Widespread misinformation about flu vaccine safety is an important public health problem, because people who believe that the flu vaccine can make us sick may be less likely to vaccinate themselves. In 2017, and in every flu cycle since 2010, less than half of American adults chose to vaccinate themselves against the flu.

Low flu vaccine uptake is especially concerning this year. Recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates suggest that the most recent flu cycle was one of the deadliest ever – as nearly 80,000 Americans died from the flu and flu-related complications in 2017. That’s more than double the number of Americans who die in traffic collisions, in a typical year.

Consequently, figuring out how public health professionals can most effectively combat misinformation about the flu vaccine is a critically important question for public health research. Looking at the latest research, we review the effectiveness of several communication strategies designed to reduce misinformation about the flu – and childhood – vaccines.

Strategy No. 1: Just the facts

Explaining that vaccines do not cause autism and have few side effects does not seem to matter to those who oppose vaccination. Numstocker/Shutterstock.com
One way that public health researchers and professionals attempt to correct misinformation about the flu is by attempting to educate people about its causes and severity, and to provide them with information about flu vaccine safety.

In general, the “just the facts” approach has limited effectiveness. For example, a recent study found that providing people with information about the health risks posed by seasonal influenza neither improved their likelihood of getting the flu vaccine nor decreased misinformation about flu vaccine safety. Scholars have found a similar pattern of results when attempting to provide people with information about the health risks posed by other diseases as well.

Providing people with information about flu vaccine safety specifically may be somewhat more effective – at least at reducing misinformation. Recent academic studies have shown that presenting survey respondents with facts about vaccine safety can decrease the extent to which survey respondents believe that vaccines are unsafe.

But, there’s a catch. People who become less likely to believe misinformation about vaccine safety are not necessarily more likely to get vaccinated, due to something scholars call the “backfire effect.”

The backfire effect occurs when efforts to provide people with information which challenges their prior beliefs can actually make them more resistant to taking action based on that information. For example, one study found that people who were told that the flu vaccine does not contain a live virus – and therefore cannot give one the flu – were more likely to report thinking that vaccines were safe. But they were also less likely to consider getting vaccinated themselves.

Strategy No. 2: Bust the myths

A second strategy that public health researchers and professionals use to correct misinformation about the flu involves tackling the myths directly by engaging in “myth busting.” This is closely tied to the first approach, except that it frequently involves exposing people to a piece of misinformation about the flu vaccine in an effort to discredit it.