Vaccinating for 'Fake News'
The Sabin Vaccine Institute held two courses on immunization in Romania from November 1-3, 2018. The first day, Media Skills: Serving as an Immunization Champion, brought health care professionals together to learn how to be an expert resource for journalists. This was followed by Reporting on Immunization, a two-day course for journalists to learn about basic immunology and vaccinations, and to promote responsible reporting and accuracy in the media. This is speaker David Jarmul’s blog post on his experience at the meetings, originally published on his blog Not Exactly Retired.
Parents considering whether to vaccinate their children shouldn’t trust the medical establishment, which wants to take away their kids, their rights and maybe even their organs.
Health officials in Moldova and Romania are familiar with such nonsense. As they’ve struggled recently to contain outbreaks of measles, they’ve encountered assertions like these spread by a small but determined anti-vaccination movement.
Local journalists who report on the situation face a similar dilemma of countering this “fake news” with the reality that vaccines have saved more lives than any other medical advance in recent history and are extraordinarily safe. Vaccines save nearly three million lives annually worldwide and reduce healthcare costs by $16 for every dollar spent.
This past week, four months after I completed my Peace Corps service in Moldova, I returned to the region to participate in two workshops dealing with vaccines — one to help health professionals communicate more effectively about them, the second for journalists who cover vaccination efforts. The Sabin Vaccine Institute organized the two gatherings in Sinaia, Romania, home of the famous Peleș Castle, which I visited before the meetings.
Drawing on my background as a science writer, I encouraged the health professionals at the first workshop to interact more with the news media and public, and to share their personal stories along with their expertise. Two other speakers and I then led them through mock interviews where they could practice answering questions and speaking without jargon to the public.
The second workshop provided reporters from the two countries with a quick course on how vaccines work, together with discussions about regional challenges to immunization, why some parents are skeptical and how the anti-vaccination movement fosters distrust. Aliona Serbulenco, state secretary at Moldova's Ministry of Health, told the group “vaccines are the most controlled and inspected product compared to all of the other pharmaceuticals on the market.”
“The public needs to evaluate risks based on facts rather than opinions,” agreed Oleg Benes, who helps coordinate immunization programs for the World Health Organization regional office in Copenhagen.
Ovidiu Covaciu, who manages a large Facebook group and produces materials that promote vaccination, was among several speakers who called on reporters to resist what he termed a “false balance” between actual facts and the false claims promoted by vaccination opponents.
Mihai Craiu, a pediatrician who uses social media to communicate with the public, said he discusses vaccination regularly but not exclusively, preferring to mix it with other topics.
Freelance journalist Octavian Coman, who wrote an extensive article about the measles outbreaks, and Ioana Avadani, director of the Center for Independent Journalism in Bucharest, spoke at both gatherings. Other speakers discussed topics ranging from the factors affecting “vaccine hesitancy” among parents to Moldova’s efforts to increase HPV vaccination. Reporters at the second meeting covered a wall with ideas during one session and broke into groups during another to develop media strategies for responding to a possible new outbreak of measles.
The Sabin Vaccine Institute, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit organization, previously organized similar workshops for journalists in Latin America.