Public support of mandatory HPV vaccine wanes after negative news coverage

Public support of mandatory HPV vaccine wanes after negative news coverage

Prolonged exposure to controversy has potential to erode support for laws requiring vaccine for young girls, study finds

Meet the expert:
Amanda F. Dempsey, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H.

Learn more:
Department of Pediatrics and Communicable Diseases
C.S. Mott Children's Hospital

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ANN ARBOR, Mich. - The vaccine that protects against the potentially cancer-causing human papillomavirus (HPV) enjoys wide support in the medical and public health communities - but laws mandating the vaccine have been controversial.

State laws that require young girls to be vaccinated for middle school attendance have aroused debate among parents, politicians, and medical and public health experts who disagree about whether such laws are appropriate. News coverage about HPV vaccine requirements tend to amplify this controversy, possibly leading to negative attitudes among the public about the value of the HPV vaccine or other vaccines.

Those are the findings of a study that appears in the November issue of the journal Health Affairs.

The study was conducted at the University of Michigan and co-authored by Amanda Dempsey, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor in the Division of General Pediatrics at the University of Michigan, with Sarah Gollust, Ph.D, leading the study. Gollust was a doctoral student at the University of Michigan and is now an assistant professor in the Division of Health Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota.

The study found that awareness of controversy resulted in diminished public support for legally mandating the HPV vaccine.

Researchers administered an Internet-based survey to a randomly-selected sample of participants representative of the U.S. population. Participants were assigned to two groups who were then exposed to two different hypothetical news briefs about legislative action related to the HPV vaccine. One presented the HPV vaccine as enjoying widespread support and the other positioned the vaccine as controversial.

The study is the first of its kind to examine directly the tie between controversy about a piece of health policy portrayed in the news media and public support for the policy.

Based on this study and previous research, researchers suggest that prolonged exposure to controversy has the potential to erode public support for the policy.

"This research raises important questions about how the news media's tendency to report on controversy shapes public opinion about health policy," Gollust says.

While support for HPV vaccine legislation waned in the shadow of controversy, support for other vaccines remained unchanged, which is an encouraging finding, Dempsey says

Some public health experts have worried that publicized controversy over the HPV vaccine could lead to public concerns about other childhood vaccines, an important issue because of recent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases like whooping cough and measles.

Authors: Sarah E. Gollust, Ph.D., of the University of Minnesota, Amanda F. Dempsey, M.D., Ph.D., M.P.H., Paula M. Lantz, Ph.D., Peter A. Ubel, M.D., and Erika Franklin Fowler, Ph.D., of the University of Michigan

Funding: This research project was supported in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar program and the National Science Foundation.