Using Social Media to Understand the Vaccine Debate in China

A new study by SEAS researchers highlights how public perception of vaccine safety can be threatened by isolated incidents.

February 26, 2020


The World Health Organization identified vaccine hesitancy as one of their top 10 challenges of 2019. (Photo: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Vaccine acceptance is a crucial public health issue that has been exacerbated by the use of social media to spread content expressing vaccine hesitancy, according to a new study led by School of Engineering and Applied Science researchers.

Previous studies have shown that social media can provide new information regarding the dynamics of vaccine communication online, potentially affecting real-world vaccine behaviors. A team of United States-based researchers observed an example of this in 2018 related to the Changchun Changsheng Biotechnology vaccine incident in China.

Chinese government inspectors determined that Changchun Changsheng Biotechnology, a prominent manufacturer of vaccines in China, had violated national regulations and standards when producing 250,000 rabies vaccine doses in July 2018.

The research team found that expressions of distrust in government pertaining to vaccines increased significantly on social media during and immediately after the incident. They also found that self-reports of vaccination changed from positive endorsements of vaccination to concerns about vaccine harms. Overall, expressed support for vaccine acceptance in China may be decreasing, the study finds.

This change is cause for concern amid an outbreak of a novel respiratory virus called COVID-19 in China and other parts of Europe and the Middle East, said David Broniatowski, senior author on the study and associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering. There is currently no vaccine for COVID-19.

“The World Health Organization identified vaccine hesitancy as one of their top 10 challenges of 2019. When a vaccine is ultimately developed, vaccine hesitancy for virulent illnesses, such as COVID-19 or influenza, could spell the difference between smaller, contained outbreaks and a worldwide pandemic,” he said. “Governments and public health agencies around the world need to prioritize health communication efforts. Even the safest and most effective vaccine is useless if people refuse to take it."

The study highlights how even a single vaccine safety incident could threaten public perception of vaccines. Dian Hu, a SEAS Ph.D. candidate working in Dr. Broniatowski’s lab, was the paper’s lead author.

The possible emergence of vaccine opposition in China is also a potential cause for concern to the researchers considering the density of several large Chinese population centers.