Bachmann vaccine furor shows importance of getting out in front of misinformation

Politicians will say almost anything if they think it will help them win their next election. But in Rep. Michelle Bachmann’s quest to win the Republican nomination for President, she re-hashed an old falsehood last week – one that set off a furor in the medical community and illustrates the importance of getting out in front of misinformation in your field.

One of the issues Texas Governor Rick Perry is defending is a vaccination program he instituted in Texas schools in 2007. Sixth grade girls received Merck & Co.’s Gardasil vaccine to prevent Human papillomavirus (HPV), an STD which is linked to cervical and other types of cancers. The candidates’ criticisms have ranged from whether government should force children to have vaccinations to whether or not Perry ordered the program to get a political donation (according to the Washington Post, Merck has made nearly $30,000 in donations to Perry since) to whether getting the vaccine encourages girls to have sex prematurely.

Where the firestorm was really ignited, however, was in a TV interview Bachmann (R-MN) gave the morning after last week’s Republican debate in Florida. In the interview, Bachmann said:

“[The vaccine] comes with some very significant consequences. There’s a woman who came up crying to me tonight after the debate. She said her daughter was given that vaccine. She told me her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics swiftly moved to debunk Bachmann’s quote, saying in a statement “There is absolutely no scientific validity to this statement. Since the vaccine has been introduced, more than 35 million doses have been administered, and it has an excellent safety record.” And there was criticism of Bachmann in the media. But she had already perpetuated the myth, one that plays to a skepticism many already have of vaccinations, and one already fueled by other prominent figures (such as Jenny McCarthy).

Now the medical community is not only fighting a myth, but a myth that makes sense to a lot of people based on what they already believe to be true, and one that was espoused by a prominent figure at that. And that is the hardest type of myth to fight.

The communications lesson here for any organization: get your message out there first, make your message as clear and easy to understand as possible, and keep shouting it. Don’t leave any kind of void for your “opponents” to fill, because they will. Use every communications tool that will reach your target audience to accomplish this.

In the case of the medical community, physicians should present the research they read about in Pediatrics to their patients and others in a more accessible, easier-to-understand form. Social Media is a great way to do this, especially since health care consumers are increasingly turning to these tools for health information as it is. But the most important thing is to be proactive. If the patient shows up in the office questioning the benefits of vaccines, the physician is already behind the 8-ball.

3 Responses to Bachmann vaccine furor shows importance of getting out in front of misinformation

  1. Krista says:

    Ugh, where do I start with this? The average American voter, and one that runs along party lines, is not going to consult medical journals to fact check Ms. Bachman’s claims, nor are they going to understand the intricacies of how policitians purposefully communicate in order to win votes. A single remark that gets repeated like Ms. Bachman’s is all they need to accept something as medical fact.

    What her remarks have done is perpetuated a problem with ensuring the public health and safety of all Americans as it relates to vaccinations. The medical community, and the public health community in particular, needs to make sure their messages are consistent, especially as they relate to controversial public health issues. Remember when Jenny McCarthy was decrying all vaccinations as causing autism? And then that *one* study that made that claim was uncovered as false? Regardless if the claim was uncovered to be false, the damage was done.

    It really strikes me as irresponsible for politicians to play people’s emotions against pubilc health when they purposefully distort the facts. I’m sure by next week, Ms. Bachman’s campaign will focus on something else to throw at her opponents, as is the nature of politics.

    • Joshua Brett says:

      Bachmann was at it again in last night’s debate. When questioned on her Gardasil statement, she said that she was simply repeating what this mother told her, as if she shouldn’t be responsible for checking the facts of a story before presenting them as a national political figure on network TV.

      Maybe I’m just too cynical, but politicians (of both parties) care about only one thing: winning their next election. They’ll say and do almost anything if they think it will help them accomplish that. As for the long-term, big picture consequences? That’s someone else’s problem to deal with.

  2. Pingback: A Little Birdy Told Me…Week of 9/19/11 « PR in Pink

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