As Americans await their COVID-19 shot, a new study of a different vaccine shows the power of Facebook posts in fueling "anti-vax" resistance to immunization.
The study included more than 10 years of public Facebook posts on the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. It found that nearly 40% of 6,500 HPV vaccine-related posts from 2006 to 2016 amplified a perceived risk. The data suggest the posts had momentum over time.
"We should not assume that only the disease is perceived as a risk, but when research supports it, that medical treatments and interventions might unfortunately also be perceived as risks," said Monique Luisi, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, in Columbia.
"It's more likely that people are going to see things on social media, particularly on Facebook, that are not only negative about the HPV vaccine, but will also suggest the HPV vaccine could be harmful. It amplifies the fear that people may have about the vaccine, and we see that posts that amplify fear are more likely to trend than those that don't," she said in a school news release
Luisi said the findings could shed light on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and distribution.
During the rollout, people will likely see a lot of negative information and that negative information will be what trends on social media, she said.
"If the public can anticipate this negative information, it will be interesting to see if that will make them less sensitive to the perceived risk of the vaccine," she noted.
Research must continue to address the perception of vaccine safety where the vaccine is perceived as a greater health threat than the virus or disease it prevents, Luisi added.
She said the spread of negative information about the HPV shot may lead people to have a false perception of it. Luisi recommended consulting with doctors to make an informed decision.
"People are going to see what they are going to see on social media, so it's important to not only take what you see on social media, but also talk to a doctor or health care provider," she said. "Just because it's trending doesn't mean it's true."
HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can cause genital warts and cancer. A vaccine to prevent it has been available since 2006, and the CDC has more than 12 years of data showing that it is safe and effective, according to the study.
However, HPV vaccination rates across the United States still remain low.
The vaccine is recommended for boys and girls between 9 and 14 years of age, and for people up to age 26 who haven't already gotten the vaccine or finished the series of shots.
The report was published Jan. 8 in the journal Vaccine.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about HPV.
SOURCE: University of Missouri, news release, Jan. 5, 2021