The Anti Vaxxer Movement is Growing—We Need to Restore Faith in Science | Opinion

The anti-vaxx movement has been gaining momentum in countries across the globe. In a world of post truth politics, more and more parents are buying into the belief that vaccines come with health risks. Many still believe the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine is linked with autism, despite numerous scientific studies debunking this myth. Experts must find better ways to explain to people why we know that vaccines are safe and helpful to society.

First-time parents face a barrage of complicated questions: How do we keep the baby safe? Is everything in the house all right? What about nutrition and environmental safety? Not all new parents agree on these subjects and sleep deprivation doesn't exactly help. Some also have grandparents weighing in too.

The first weeks of a baby's life is the worst possible moment for parents to start discussions about childhood immunizations, research by the Vienna Vaccine Safety Initiative (ViVI) and the School of Design Thinking has found. Yet, this is exactly what happens in most settings.

When the parents meet their pediatrician for the first time, they will be receiving an overwhelming amount of information and the topic of vaccinations will inevitably come up. The way our healthcare systems are currently set up, lengthy consultations are not reimbursed very much, and well-child visits are often too brief to get all questions answered.

Restoring trust in vaccines and immunization requires innovative solutions and we may need to reconsider how the overall system is organized. Why not discuss vaccines during pregnancy, for example, when new parents are having more time to ask questions, to seek information, and to make up their minds?

We have been working to develop a user-centered approach to vaccine safety communication. This involves design thinking—a technique that emulates the way a product designer would approach the development of a new tool. The designer would focus on the end-user, rather than retreating into expert terminology, and throughout the process they would step back to keep sight of the initial challenge.

ViVI was founded over a shared concern about the increasing polarization of the topic of vaccines and immunization. In 2008—when the terms "filter bubble" and "echo chamber" were not yet part of a common vocabulary—the group started studying the tribalization into opposing factions of "pro-vaxxers" versus "anti-vaxxers," and the widening communication gap between patients and healthcare professionals.

The think tank developed a number of hands-on projects—from improving the training of medical students, to studying the introduction and impact of immunization programs in developing countries. By taking a deeper look into everyday practice, the team initiated science-informed quality improvement programs, and developed and validated practical digital tools for improving doctor-patient communication and patient satisfaction.

One of these innovations is the VAccApp, a mobile application that takes all the lessons learned to the point of care.

The exercise of looking at a clinic or emergency room setting from the viewpoint of a patient provided new insight. Time that could be used for health education is wasted in waiting rooms. Parents may have questions on their minds that can be clarified beforehand. What if new digital tools can be integrated into the workflow to make the best of a visit? How about empowering parents to become equal partners in protecting the health of their children?

World Health Organization (WHO) guidance recommends using each patient encounter to check the patient's immunization status and to catch up on any vaccines that may be missing. Depending on the country and federal state a family lives in, this may be handled very differently. Some countries are now using the WHO International Certificate of Vaccination as a routine record to be usually kept by the parent and passed on to the children as they grow up. Others use regional/national paper records or electronic registries/records.

A review of existing vaccination systems showed that records are complex and usually directed only at the healthcare professional. They are also poorly standardized, complicating the lives of families moving between countries and states. Often, the vaccination record may be lost or destroyed, especially in times of medical emergencies or sudden dislocation.

The ViVI team decided to develop a user-centered mobile application to empower parents and older children to get informed about the purpose and timing of immunizations, and to keep track of vaccines administered to members of their family.

VAccApp users reported that they enjoy being well-informed and equipped to ask targeted questions during physician encounters, if uncertain about the course of action. Use of the VAccApp also significantly improved the accuracy of the information received by the doctor, in comparison to a group trying to recall immunizations off-hand.

We hope the app will help parents better understand vaccinations—and make sure their child is kept up to date.

As vaccination rates drop, diseases that had almost been defeated are starting to make a comeback. We must restore trust in scientific information and dispel myths about vaccinations to get us back on the right path and ensure the health of future generations.

Barbara Rath is co-founder and chair of the Vienna Vaccine Safety Initiative. She is also honorary professor at the University of Nottingham School of Medicine, U.K., Research Director at the University of Bourgogne-Franche-Comté in France, and board member with the International Society for Influenza and Other Respiratory Viruses (ISIRV).

Rath's gave a presentation on vaccine communication at the 2018 Society for Risk Analysis (SRA) Annual Meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​​​​