Last month, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews fired off a couple of tweets, based on a screen grab of a Facebook comment, suggesting pictures of crying babies on news stories about vaccinations are “straight from the anti-vax playbook”.

Andrews said images of babies crying with a “comically large needle” played into the “harmful agenda” of anti-vaccination activists, and that he’d try to get news outlets and government sites to instead use stock images that “show the absolute necessity of vaccines”.

But, while experts say those images aren’t helpful, they’re unlikely to actually stop anyone vaccinating their child if they were otherwise going to. And politicians leaping in on what is a social norm can actually make health professionals’ jobs harder.

Sydney Nursing School associate professor Julie Leask, who’s studied media representation of vaccination for more than 20 years, told Crikey that the media has less of an impact on parents’ decision to immunise than is widely accepted.

“We routinely underestimate the critical capacity of mothers to see that yes, vaccination is uncomfortable but the benefits outweigh that,” Leask said. “In the wider scheme of things, images like that are a drop in the ocean of things that impact the decision to immunise or not.”

Leask said that politicians tended to see vaccination as a vote-winner because it is a social norm in Australia. “There’s a lot of angst from Australian society about vaccination and a lot of defensiveness. Politicians have picked up on that and they see that as a vote-winner,” she said.

“If you’re seen to support vaccination you know you’re lining up with Australian values by a large majority. We want politicians and leaders to support vaccination, but hyper-defensiveness of vaccination can lead people to get things out of proportion in terms of anti-vaccination.”

Leask said the vast majority of Australian parents chose to vaccinate their children, and Australian programs were robust. 

“We have a robust system that can be open to critics. That’s science. Where you get vaccination used as political opportunism, you may get politicians rushing to policies that are ultimately not great for the whole vaccination enterprise … While strong support for vaccination is vital, politicisation doesn’t help that process.”

Leask said politicians jumping on the campaign trail for vaccination could lead to policy-on-the-run, such as the No Jab No Play policy, which the experts we spoke to said had the potential to punish un-immunised children twice, by then missing out on the social and education benefits of childcare.

Catherine Helps, a midwife and children’s nurse and PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, has been interviewing parents who choose not to vaccinate in the Byron Shire as part of her research, and told Crikey that most families she’d spoken to didn’t consume mainstream media.

“The decision not to vaccinate is highly complicated and it’s a decision these parents take very seriously,” she said. “It’s not something they do on a whim or because they’re scared of the pain of a needle to their children … The parents I’ve spoken to who’ve weighed up everything they could find including from health department sources.”

Helps said that while images of crying babies shouldn’t be go-to images to represent vaccination, tweets and comments from politicians and other leaders that presumed to understand why parents vaccinate or not, could make it harder for health professionals to do their jobs.

“There’s a problem with ostracising people and if we continue to do that, even if in small ways, that can add to the us and them and can make it harder to have conversations about it,” Helps said. “It sets up the rest of the community to feel like they can say whatever they want, like it’s normal to be disparaging because our politicians are doing it.”

Murdoch Children’s Research Institute senior research fellow and paediatrician Dr Margie Danchin agreed that Andrews’ take was simplistic, but the impact of those images on parents’ decision to vaccinate hadn’t yet been directly studied.

“I don’t think it helps but don’t think it’s going to stop someone vaccinating. The decision making around vaccinating your child is more complicated than that … The most important predictor is whether they’ve had vaccination recommended by a health provider.”

Danchin said anti-vaccination websites and campaigners had a “powerful influence” over parents who were already hesitant or refusing to vaccinate (around 20%), but about 90% of parents relied on information from healthcare providers.

Andrews didn’t respond to Crikey’s request for comment, or information about research or expert opinions he based his tweets on, and any action he’d taken to pursue it.

Leask said the bigger issue for health professionals with stock images was that they often don’t show correct vaccination technique, and the people in the images are usually white. She suggested Andrews should instead fund a range of stock images for use by government and news websites — a suggestion Crikey has also put to his office.

Peter Fray

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