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Who exactly are the anti-vaxxers? The answer will surprise you


Who exactly are the anti-vaxxers? The answer will surprise you

Researchers mined a vicious campaign on a medical Facebook page. Their findings were unexpected

Senior science reporter

It all began with a vicious social media attack – a backlash after what was meant to be a promotional video. But then, a researcher began to mine the data of the attack, and voila, major insight into the anti-vaxxer movement was born.
In 2017, a paediatric medical practice wanting to scale up HPV vaccination posted a promotional video on its Facebook page. The HPV vaccine is a preventative measure against the human papillomavirus which can protect against certain types of HPV that cause cancer or genital warts. It is given in two shots to those between nine and 14 years of age, but three shots if the patient is older than that.
The practice, based in America and called Kids Plus Pediatrics, noticed that a month later the global anti-vaxxer community had spotted the post. Over a single week anti-vaxxer vitriol proliferated all over the Facebook page, resulting in thousands of negative comments.
Shortly after this, an academic thought it would be useful to dig deep into the comments and see where they were coming from, geographically and socially. Elizabeth Felter, at the Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, set up a team headed by graduate student Beth Hoffman.
Hoffman’s team then partnered with the paediatric practice, and thus began a “systematic analysis” to better understand the people’s comments and how they were clustered in terms of mindset.
Vaccines have prevented more than 100 million cases of serious childhood diseases, but the World Health Organisation has now listed vaccine hesitancy on its “10 threats to global health in 2019 list”, stating that, for example, “measles has seen a 30% increase in cases globally”, with some countries “that were close to eliminating the disease having seen a resurgence”.
The results of the research were surprising, and extremely valuable in knowing how to tackle the anti-vaxxer movement which has put several deadly childhood diseases back on the map.
The research showed that, although the medical practice was located in a suburb in Pittsburgh, those commenting negatively were from eight different countries and 36 different states across America. They also found that the majority of commentators were mothers, and that 56% of those commenting were Trump supporters.
Also, those trying to tackle the anti-vaxxer movement often believe that the fraudulent study on how the mumps-measles-rubella vaccine causes autism is to be blamed for vaccine hesitancy. However, the results from the study showed that this isn’t always the case, so a blanket approach to undoing vaccine hesitancy is not useful.
The team looked into the social media behaviour from the past two years of a random selection of about 200 people who had commented on the paediatric practice’s Facebook page, and found that they were “clustered into four distinct subgroups”.
These were: the “trust” group (they were suspicious of the scientific community and concerned about personal liberty); the “alternatives” group (which lauded homeopathy over the active ingredients in vaccines); the “safety” group (which focused on risks and immorality); and the “conspiracy” group (which believes the government is hiding information, including that the polio virus doesn’t actually exist).
Hoffman said: “The presence of these distinct subgroups cautions against a blanket approach to public health messages that encourage vaccination. For example, telling someone in the ‘trust’ subgroup that vaccines don’t cause autism may alienate them because that isn’t their concern to begin with.”
It might be more effective to “find common ground and deliver tailored messages related to trust and the perception that mandatory vaccination threatens their ability to make decisions for their child”.
The research was published in the journal Vaccine, and suggests that dismissing those with a different view could be a “lost opportunity”.
Todd Wolynn, who heads up the paediatric practice and co-authored the paper, said that “although the negative comments in reaction to the practice's video were disheartening”, they were delighted that it had turned into a “learning experience” that could be of great benefit to other clinicians.

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