• Two in five parents exposed to negative messages about vaccines on social media
  • This rises to one in two among parents of under 5s
  • Across a range of vaccines including MMR, HPV, and Flu, fear of side effects was the most common reason for choosing not to vaccinate

RSPH has published a report revealing the extent to which social media propagates misinformation about vaccinations, and that the perceived risks of side effects are the key concern among those who choose not to vaccinate. While all vaccines have potential side effects, in reality they only affect some people – and are typically mild, short-lived, and far outweighed by the benefits of immunisation. 

The Moving the Needle report explores vaccinations in the UK from childhood to older age, investigating the role of and barriers to vaccination throughout life. While the UK maintains world-leading levels of vaccine coverage – and this should be celebrated – the report reveals troubling findings about the extent to which public concern over side effects of vaccination continues to be a barrier to uptake. 'Fake news’ on social media may be influential in spreading these concerns. 

However, attitudes to vaccines in general were largely positive, with 91% of parents in agreement that vaccines are important for their children’s health. Other key findings of the report include: 

  • There is a fairly low understanding of key concepts of vaccination, with over a quarter of people (28%) incorrectly believing you can have too many vaccinations 
  • Timing, availability and location of appointments were identified as barriers to vaccination by both the public and by healthcare professionals 
  • Trust in healthcare professionals remains high, with doctors and nurses consistently highly valued as a source of information about vaccines 
  • Interestingly, trust in religious leaders regarding vaccines was twice as common among 25-34 year olds (19%) as among other age groups

RSPH is calling for a multi-pronged approach to improving and maintaining uptake of vaccinations in the UK, including: 

  • Efforts to limit ‘fake news’ about vaccinations online and via social media should be stepped up, especially by social media platforms themselves 
  • Vaccinations should be offered in a more diverse range of locations, including at high-street pop-ups, gyms and workplaces, utilising the wider public health workforce. This is supported by over half the public
  • Reminder services should be improved and diversified, such as introducing birthday style social media pop-ups for the one in four of us who find forgetting appointments a key barrier to getting vaccinated

Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive, RSPH said: “Vaccinations are one of the most powerful tools we have for protecting and improving the public’s health, saving millions of lives every year across the globe. The value of vaccinations throughout life should not be underestimated. 

In the UK, we are fortunate to have a fantastic, world-leading vaccination programme, with excellent levels of coverage. However, we should never be complacent: history has taught us that fear and misinformation about vaccines can cause substantial damage to even the strongest vaccination programmes. 

With the rise of social media, we must guard against the spread of ‘fake news’ about vaccinations. We have found worrying levels of exposure to negative messages about vaccinations on social media, and the spread of misinformation – if it impacts uptake of vaccines – could severely damage the public’s health. 

It is 21 years since Andrew Wakefield published his infamous and now widely discredited paper on an alleged link between the MMR vaccine and autism, and Europe is still living with the consequences – as we have seen with the resurgence in measles rates in recent years. In the 21st Century it would be unacceptable to allow vaccine-preventable diseases to make a comeback, and it is vital we do all we can to ensure the UK maintains its status as a global leader in vaccination.”