Monday, October 22, 2007

Why Vaccine Risk Communication?

As with any drug, vaccines have associated risks with them. No vaccine is a hundred percent safe. Admittedly, most serious adverse reaction to immunizations are very rare. But most people don't know that--or should I say, feel that? Because, to be honest, most of the time people are not afraid of the 'real risks' of vaccines but of the 'perceived risks' of vaccines.

The real risks (those scientifically shown to be associated with vaccines) usually are fever, pain and redness at the injection site, and a crying baby. The perceived risks (not necessarily real and often with little scientific basis) include asthma, diabetes, autism, and a series of chronic diseases. I have discussed the origins and reasons behind these vaccine safety concerns here.

Risk Communication is the communication of the probability and uncertainty that a particular hazard will cause an effect (and of how to manage the risk).

Risk communicators mediate between the experts and the public, between the scientific assessment of risk and the public perception of risk. That doesn't mean that the experts are always right and the public is always wrong. It just means that their views of risk are usually discordant. For instance, scientists define risks in terms of the effect on population, but the public is concerned with the effect on individuals. Thus the need for risk communication.

My work as a medical writer involves writing about vaccine safety issues so, naturally, I'm interested in vaccine risk communication. That's what this blog is about.

I will close this first post with a quote from risk communication expert, Peter Sandman:

“Vaccination proponents are … outraged that the public doesn’t trust them; outraged that vaccination critics keep impugning their competence and integrity; outraged that nonscientists are daring to make their own scientific judgments; outraged that a major public health achievement may be undermined as a result. Just as the opponents’ outrage makes them unable to interpret the data on vaccination safety appropriately, the proponents’ outrage makes them unable to interpret the data on the sources of opponents’ outrage appropriately. This isn’t a fight between hysterical vaccination opponents and calm, rational vaccination proponents. Both sides, at their worst, behave like children — one side shrill, the other patronizing, and neither entirely honest.”

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