Dr. Jen Gunter, Bad Science Slayer

Dr. Jen Gunter, Bad Science Slayer

As the media continues to struggle with “balanced” reporting of vaccine issues, physicians have become increasingly determined to call out the outlets publishing misleading articles about vaccination. Science supports only one side of this “argument,” yet news publications continue to fuel the anti-vaccine movement. Luckily, the Hippocratic Oath doesn’t prohibit doctors from “doing harm” to media outlets, as a group of them recently mounted a full frontal assault on a story run by the Toronto Star entitled HPV vaccine Gardasil has a dark side. The article chronicled several teens and their families who received the Gardasil vaccine and claim to have been severely injured or even died as a result of the popular HPV vaccine.

The same day the story was released, Dr. Jennifer Gunter (@DrJenGunter), a social media savvy obstetrician/gynecologist published a rebuttal on her blog (drjengunter.com) in response to the newspaper’s article. Unsurprisingly, she was quickly joined by other healthcare professionals as well as patients. Digital media professional Karen Geier (@karengeier) posted a storify article that is, to date, the most shared piece by physicians in the entire conversation. Geier’s piece highlights the response of Dr. Ben Goldacre (@bengoldacre), who unequivocally shut down any arguments that the Star’s piece was based on credible science. Juliet Guichon and immunologist Dr. Rupert Kaul responded to the article with a commentary in the newspaper’s very own opinion section entitled Science shows HPV vaccine has no dark side. After much criticism and well-deserved drama, the paper finally retracted the article.

Toronto Star-A note from the publisher

Toronto Star-A note from the publisher


Though it appears most people shared physician’s disgust over the article, out of the nearly 4,000 posts tweeted at the Toronto Star in this timeframe, a little over 6% would be considered “anti-vaccine.” I isolated the users in this fraction of the conversation and began analyzing their online interactions to better understand their motivations and online behaviors. Through these efforts, I was able to identify 218 unique Twitter handles dedicated to pushing back against vaccination.

I was not surprised to find that just as other medical advocacy groups have developed strong ties among passionate people, so too has the anti-vaccine movement.Volume over time-doctors

By examining the language these people used to describe themselves in their biographies I was able to construct a word cloud. A word cloud is a graphic organizing the most common words with increasing or decreasing font size according to each word’s frequency.

Word cloud-anti-vaccine

The make-up of this group contained a few surprises. The most obvious insight from this word cloud is the apparent connection to the autism advocacy community. Out of 218 handles I was able to collect for this experiment, 54 of them mentioned “autism” or “autistic” in their biography. Many of these autism Twitter handles (32 to be exact) described themselves as either a mother, wife, or both. As it turns out, many of them are parents of children with disabilities like autism who suspect a vaccine to be the cause of their child’s condition. Though numerous studies have busted the alleged link between autism and vaccines, the anti-vax advocacy movement is by its very nature distrustful of the scientific community. The trend seen here conflicts with the masses of other autism advocates who are pro-vaccination and have worked tirelessly to correct the longstanding myth that vaccines are a cause of the condition.

Another commonality among these anti-vax handles is their interest in eating organic foods and speaking out against GMOs. This trait applied to 8% of the accounts in the analysis and sheds light on the concern for the environment many of these advocates share. Environmental activism as a whole appears to be an issue of great importance for this population. By categorizing these expressed values and causes listed in their biographical information, I was able to place 79 handles into their most likely political affiliation (liberal or conservative). The overwhelming majority appeared to learn way, way left of center when it came to politics. However, the far right also came up a fair amount, particularly those with libertarian beliefs. It’s also worth noting that when it came to explicit biographical mentions of their political affiliation (ex: “I am a libertarian”), they were about the same with 3% claiming to be liberal and 2% conservative.

antivax biography mentions

political leanings

Clearly there is a disconnect between well-meaning professionals in the medical community and this diverse group of advocates. However when physicians like Dr. Gunter correct the misinformation provided by the media, patients and other media outlets take notice. Many of the people who retweeted the original article posted by the Toronto Star also ended up sharing Dr. Gunter’s blog post. As indicated by the charts above, some patients are at war with vaccines. Facts and information help, but the context provided by Dr. Gunter’s rebuttal to this article is critical to changing public opinion over the time.

Though I find myself in disagreement with the anti-vaccine community, I also understand their fight is founded by concern for loved ones-a universal trait we all can relate to. Heated disputes and emotionally-charged debates will not solve this public health issue. Doctors Ben Goldacre and Jennifer Gunter, along with a multitude of other healthcare professionals were successful in correcting the unbalanced reporting on vaccines in a way that promoted the science while still shedding light on the concerns of the anti-vax community. Theirs should stand as a model for future dialogue as we strive to make informed decisions as either patients or healthcare professionals in the seemingly infinite pursuit of well-being for which we so vaguely call “health.”