When words don’t match: The problem with “vaccine safety” and its coverage

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“Vaccine safety” is now a disturbing new phrase used in media coverage.

When one news story adopts a new expression, other media outlets soon follow.

This snowball effect means that the expression “vaccine safety” is now a disturbing part of the mass media lexicon.

The phrase will most certainly attract doubt and negativity around the very idea of immunization. Putting the two words together is much like leaving cheese in the hot sun. Soon, it starts to stink and then attract flies and pests.

This is happening at a time when around the world, vaccines prevent 2.5 million deaths a year among children under the age of five, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The latest assault on immunization is the latest in a 20-year history of troubling moments in the undoing of public health advancement.

One catalyst for this undoing–and the rise of the anti-vaccination movement–was a 1998 article by Andrew Jeremy Wakefield, a former British surgeon and medical researcher, published in one of the world’s oldest and best-known medical journals, The Lancet.

The article claimed a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and autism and bowel disease. A vaccine scare took off, yet critics were quickly concerned that the study had few participants, no controls, and relied on anecdotal information and beliefs from parents.

The paper was retracted 12 years later following a series of studies that found no evidence of a link between the vaccine and autism.

Skip forward almost 20 years and the misinformed trouble continues, with new and powerful actors.

As of April 2017, top search results of recent news coverage about “vaccine safety” revolve completely around U.S. President Donald Trump. He has long given time and attention to the concerns of the anti-vaccine movement.

U.S. News & World Report published an opinion piece that exemplifies much of the mainstream media’s response to President Trump announcing his concerns about the negative effects of vaccination on the American population.

In the article, the author (a medical doctor with experience as a senior U.S. government health official) makes three suggestions about where the U.S. Congress could focus its energies: increase budgets for vaccine safety research; support coordination of existing vaccine surveillance; and focus on areas of the country where immunization rates are dangerously low.

In other words, the advice is to keep doing more of the same, but better.

These suggestions are likely quite excellent, reasonable and if implemented, will vastly improve the health of all Americans.

The problem with the author’s suggestions is that given the times in which we live, they are simply too reasonable.

The coverage reflects the need among the scientific and medical community to make lemonade from a giant bowl of lemons.

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Vaccines prevent 2.5 million death each year among children under the age of five, reports the CDC.

Taken another way, however, these scientists are not accepting the precious responsibility handed to them by generations of others who created vaccines to save children from known killers like measles, smallpox and polio, just to mention a few.

Scientists responding to President Trump’s musings are playing fair ball.

However, there is no fair play in defending the value of vaccines.

You could also finger the mainstream media who continue to seek balance in stories about vaccination, especially considering the U.S. President’s skepticism about vaccines.

Is the need for balance in vaccine stories necessary? Would you imagine the need for media balance in news stories about other societal issues such as abuse (of animals or humans) or terrorist attacks?

Until or if the mainstream media starts to recognize vaccine as an unquestionable societal need, much more forceful, direct arguments are needed when members the scientific and medical community speak to the media.

This is needed because when world’s most powerful leader muses about the safety of these practices, fewer people will get their children (and themselves) vaccinated.

For example, one convoluted story in The Washington Post centres on a  blog post featuring a fictitious interview written by an infectious disease expert. The blog post was in response to a comment by America’s top health official Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

Price, when asked whether all children should get immunized for measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases, said state governments “have the public health responsibility to determine whether or not immunizations are required for a community population.”

What is so interesting about The Washington Post story is that it is a news article about an interview that never really happened.

Surely, the media can do much better in reporting on the values of vaccination and start by questioning its turn of phrases and framing of a public health measure that saves lives.