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Patients often avoid vaccinations due to fear of side effects

Social media may fuel misconceptions over vaccinations

Adrian O'Dowd

Thursday, 24 January 2019

Patients’ fear of side effects from vaccinations is the most common reason given for avoiding them, according to a report* published today by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH).

Social media may also be a leading cause of misconceptions over vaccinations that feeds into the public’s distrust of being vaccinated.

The RSPH’s report explores vaccinations in the UK from childhood to older age, investigating the role of and barriers to vaccination throughout life.

Although the UK maintains world-leading levels of vaccine coverage, the report reveals findings about the extent to which public concern over side effects of vaccination continues to be a barrier to uptake.

For the report, which involved a literature review, the authors also carried out three surveys – an online survey of a representative sample of 2,000 UK adults, a survey of 2,622 UK parents, and a national survey of 237 healthcare professionals who work to deliver vaccination programmes in the UK, including nurses, GPs and pharmacists.

Results showed that 40% of parents were exposed to negative messages about vaccines on social media and this rose to 50% in parents of under five-year-olds.

Across a range of vaccines including MMR, HPV, and influenza, fear of side effects was the most common reason for choosing not to vaccinate

Despite this, attitudes to vaccines in general were largely positive, with 91% of parents agreeing that vaccines are important for their children’s health.

Nevertheless, there was a fairly low understanding of key concepts of vaccination, with more than a quarter of people (28%) incorrectly believing they could have too many vaccinations.

Timing, availability and location of appointments were identified as barriers to vaccination by both the public and healthcare professionals.

In the survey of professionals, they believed that the main barrier for adults getting vaccinated was forgetting appointments (71%). This was higher than for any other factor. Other barriers included the timing (59%) and availability (52%) of appointments.

When it came to adults giving the RSPH their views on the main barriers, only around a quarter (28%) said that forgetting appointments was a barrier to receiving vaccinations.

Aside from differences between healthcare professionals and the public over the importance of forgetting appointments, both groups generally agreed that availability of appointments and timing of appointments were barriers to receiving vaccinations – with 58% and 56% respectively.

Trust in healthcare professionals remained high, with doctors and nurses consistently highly valued as a source of information about vaccines, according to the survey findings.

The RSPH called for a multi-pronged approach to improving and maintaining uptake of vaccinations in the UK, including:

  • efforts to limit ‘fake news’ about vaccinations online and via social media should be stepped up, especially by social media platforms themselves
  • vaccinations should be offered in a more diverse range of locations, including at high-street pop-ups, gyms and workplaces
  • reminder services should be improved and diversified, such as introducing birthday style social media pop-ups.

Shirley Cramer, RSPH chief executive, said: “Vaccinations are one of the most powerful tools we have for protecting and improving the public’s health, saving millions of lives every year across the globe.

“In the UK, we are fortunate to have a fantastic, world-leading vaccination programme, with excellent levels of coverage. However, we should never be complacent: history has taught us that fear and misinformation about vaccines can cause substantial damage to even the strongest vaccination programmes.

“With the rise of social media, we must guard against the spread of ‘fake news’ about vaccinations.”


*Royal Society for Public Health. Moving the Needle: Promoting vaccination uptake across the life course (January 2019).

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