FDA’s Califf calls for more plain-language scientific evidence to dilute vaccine misinformation

FDA commissioner Robert Califf has urged the clinical and biomedical community to step up efforts to counter vaccine misinformation with “accurate plain-language information” about the benefits and risks of vaccination.

Writing in JAMA, Califf and Peter Marks, the director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, present evidence that a rise in the number of people in the U.S. who are declining vaccination is threatening population immunity against some vaccine-preventable diseases. The FDA leaders expect thousands of excess deaths to occur this season because of illnesses that vaccines can soften or prevent.  

Califf and Marks finger “the large volume of vaccine misinformation” as a driver of hesitancy. With some people preferring “social media narratives over evidence-based vaccine information” from clinicians, the FDA leaders are urging “the clinical and biomedical community to redouble its efforts to provide accurate plain-language information regarding the individual and collective benefits and risks of vaccination.” 

“All those working in healthcare, while being straightforward about the risks, need to better educate people regarding the benefits of vaccination, so that individuals can make well-informed choices based on accurate scientific evidence,” the FDA leaders wrote. 

Califf and Marks’ request reflects a belief that the best way to counter misinformation is “to dilute it with large amounts of truthful, accessible scientific evidence.” One challenge is that statistics and facts can fail to move people in the same way as narrative tactics employed by people who are opposed to vaccines.  

A Unicef guide (PDF) to pro-vaccine communications advises people to “avoid messages that include statistics as these often fail to convey a message effectively.” Citing a study that found facts favoring vaccines had no effect on willingness to vaccinate children, the guide says “firsthand information about the hardships of vaccine preventable diseases” is more effective at driving behavioral change