Interview - Duncan Stephenson
Duncan Stephenson, director of external affairs, Royal Society for Public Health
Monday, February 4, 2019
The RSPH published a new report, Moving the Needle, last month, which explored attitudes to vaccinations in the UK
YOU FOUND PERCEIVED RISKS OF SIDE-EFFECTS OF VACCINATIONS ARE A BIG CONCERN FOR PARENTS, DID YOU FIND THIS SURPRISING?
To a certain degree we expected concern around side-effects to be a key factor in people’s decision-making. People who are worried about the negative effects on their or their child’s body are often weighing up what they see as a short-term risk against a benefit that is much longer term. This means it’s vital that we provide clear information – yes, all vaccines have potential side-effects, but typically these only affect some children, are mild and quick to resolve, and the potential consequences of not immunising are much more severe.
WHY DO YOU THINK THAT HISTORIC, DISCREDITED RESEARCH ABOUT SIDE-EFFECTS OF THE MMR VACCINE IS STILL A CONCERN?
There’s no doubt that this can be tied back to the Wakefield controversy of 1998, whose repercussions were felt not just in the UK but around the world. Why this has persisted quite so strongly is not completely clear.
Nurses, pharmacists and GPs told us that among all vaccines they find the MMR jab is the one most commonly refused, and some pointed to online forums and social media as drivers of this hesitancy. In a world where more and more people are getting information through social media, it matters greatly that on the whole more of this information contains negative messaging than positive.
YOU FOUND ANOTHER BARRIER TO VACCINATIONS IS INACCESSIBILITY OF SERVICES…
We’d like to see a move towards vaccinations being offered in a more diverse range of locations, and this could include high-street pop-ups, gyms, or even workplaces. This would not be without challenges – ensuring efficient data capture, for example, will be key to monitoring uptake levels – but our polling shows it is backed by the majority of the public, and it would be an efficient way to make use of and expand the public health workforce.
WHY DO YOU THINK THAT FLU VACCINATION UPTAKE REMAINS QUITE LOW FOR PRE-SCHOOLERS?
Many healthcare professionals we spoke to told us they believe the media has a significant effect on attitudes to the flu vaccine, through not giving a balanced portrayal of its effectiveness.
Every year the jab gets bad publicity, which typically fails to point out that it can still be very beneficial to increase vaccination rates even when a jab is not 100 per cent effective. Our research also found that two in five parents have been exposed to negative messaging around vaccinations on social media, and that of these, parents of under-fives were the most likely to have experienced this (50 per cent).
IS THERE ANYTHING EARLY YEARS STAFF CAN DO TO REASSURE PARENTS ABOUT GETTING THEIR CHILD VACCINATED?
Parents should be aware that there are more reliable sources of information than those they may be receiving on social media, online forums, or indeed by word of mouth. It is completely natural to have concerns about the possible side-effects a vaccine may have on one’s child, but it is important to have access to accurate information about what those side-effects might be, in comparison to the substantial benefits of immunisation. More information is available at www.nhs.uk/conditions/vaccinations.