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Can social media improve vaccination rates?

A recent study suggests that some forms of social media can effectively educate parents about vaccination, and maybe even influence their decision-making.

Can social media improve vaccination rates?

We tend to think of social media as an echo chamber in which our own ideas are amplified but never challenged. Any parent who has shared an article about vaccination is likely familiar with this concept: commenters dig ever deeper into their previously held positions instead of learning more about one another's.

But a study published in Pediatrics suggests that some forms of social media can effectively educate parents about vaccination, and maybe even influence their decision-making. This isn't about arguing or shaming, but rather supporting parents who have questions about vaccines.

The study, conducted between 2013 and 2016, enrolled over 1,000 pregnant women within the Kaiser Permanente Colorado Health Plan. The women were randomized to three different groups. The first received routine pre and postnatal care. The second received the same care, but also access to a vaccine information website generated by the researchers. The third received the same care and website, but also social media access to vaccination experts. The researchers wanted to know if, by 200 days post-birth, vaccination rates would be any different for the three groups.

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The website offered information about vaccine history, safety, and efficacy, as well as vaccination laws. For those enrolled in the third group, the website also granted access to a set of interactive features, including a discussion forum, chat room, and “Ask a Question" portal.

The researchers used recommended immunization schedules to determine whether or not the parents enrolled in the study vaccinated their children according to that schedule. They then used that information to compare the number of “undervaccinated days" between the infants from all three groups. Infants whose mothers were in the social media group had fewer undervaccinated days than those whose mothers were in the usual care group. In other words, mothers in the social media group were more likely to vaccinate on schedule than mothers who did not have this intervention.

Before we begin championing the power of social media to alter hearts and minds, it is important to note which social media components of the vaccine website parents used.

The researchers intended “to foster interaction between parents" through chat rooms and discussion forums, but most of the participants did not interact with each other: “Parents who engaged in the social media applications were primarily interested in asking our experts questions to address their specific vaccine concerns." The researchers concluded that parents contemplating their children's care want a digital space to ask questions of experts.

The study had a few limitations. First, the sample size made it impossible to determine whether there was any difference in vaccination rates between the parents with only the website and parents with the website and social media components. The researchers also note that their website, which was developed specifically for the study and was not available to the public, may have looked “outdated" by the end of the study. The social media components may have been less effective because users were more likely to turn to other sources more easily accessed through their favored platforms.

The researchers also noted how expensive the website was to maintain: most individual pediatricians and group practices cannot afford round-the-clock live support. But those kinds of resources are already available … if parents know where to look.

Helpful resources

Healthychildren.org, a parent-focused site maintained by the American Academy of Pediatrics, offers a robust library of articles about immunizations, including a feature that lets parents examine vaccine evidence for themselves and a FAQ about vaccine ingredients.

The AAP works to reach parents through a variety of platforms. Healthychildren's Facebook and Twitter pages offer daily updates on children's health issues. Healthychildren's Pinterest boards offer helpful tips separated by age group.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers many resources for parents, including a 60-page book covering all the details a parent might need to know about vaccination, as well as a slimmed-down infant FAQ. The CDC also maintains Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages with updates on health topics from around the world.

In addition to these national organizations, local hospitals often have social media accounts. In person, family doctors and paediatricians can address any questions parents have during an appointment.

[A version of this article was published December 13, 2017. It has been updated.]

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