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Experts Address Vaccine Hesitancy, Health Misinformation at School of Public Health Event

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Public health and disinformation experts offered reasons for and solutions to a surge in vaccine hesitancy and health misinformation in society at a Harvard School of Public Health virtual event Thursday.

The event, which is part of HSPH’s Public Health Storyteller series, was moderated by Nat Gyenes, the founding director of Meedan’s Digital Health Lab, a research group focusing on access to healthcare information. Gyenes posed questions to Heidi J. Larson ’79, an anthropology and decision science professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, HSPH professors Marcia C. Castro and Kasisomayajula “Vish” Viswanath, and Joan M. Donovan, the research director at the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

In her opening, Gyenes said it is important to reduce stigma in conversations about health misinformation.

“We’ve all heard health misinformation or vaccine rumors referred to as outlandish, but we really want to start by phrasing that it isn’t an ‘us and them’ issue — it’s something that affects everyone,” Gyenes said.

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Larson, who authored a 2020 book on the surge of vaccine hesitancy in society, attributed a spike in debates over vaccine safety to increased access to information as well as the growing number of available vaccines for different conditions.

She urged people who support vaccines to listen to and respect individuals who hold a different viewpoint.

“They may be saying something you totally disagree with, but I think it’s really important to listen to people’s concerns,” Larson said. “The conversation has become so polarized that it’s not helpful.”

Larson expressed her distaste for policies aimed at “preventing hesitancy” over the Covid-19 vaccines, saying she believes some hesitancy is a “responsible” reaction to a new medical treatment.

Speakers at the event also discussed the source of reservations about the coronavirus vaccines.

Castro, an HSPH professor who co-directs the Brazil Studies program at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, said vaccine misinformation in Brazil spreads rapidly on the popular messaging app WhatsApp because of the difficulty of fact-checking messages.

Larson and Viswanath, the other HSPH professor at the event, raised concerns that Black people have historically faced and continue to face day-to-day structural racism in the healthcare system, eroding trust in the Covid-19 vaccine.

Viswanath said health care providers should work to increase access to the vaccine among minority groups that have been hit hardest by the coronavirus.

“It is a system's failure that we have not provided the access that is absolutely necessary,” Viswanath said.

Donovan, Shorenstein Center's research director, said social networking sites should be subject to public interest obligations to help combat misinformation, just as radio stations are required to occasionally report on local matters including the weather.

“They don’t want to do that. We had to make a law for that, and we got to make some regulations that encourage those kinds of public interest obligations in our timelines and social media feeds,” Donovan said.

Combating health misinformation, Gyenes said, requires activism across different fields. To that end, she highlighted the diverse academic backgrounds of the panelists.

“We have a demographer, an anthropologist and disinformation researcher, a communications researcher in this conversation,” Gyenes said. “Hopefully we can build off of one another and we can really try to strengthen and improve our responses to health information and equity.”

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