Study shows media coverage on flu influences parents to vaccinate their children

Media coverage about influenza and the importance of flu shots influenced parents to vaccinate their children against the influenza virus, according to a study done by researchers and information officers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

The study's findings, published in the February issue of the journal Pediatrics, looked at the 2003-2004 flu season and whether media attention affected pediatric flu vaccination rates nationwide.

Lead author Katherine Poehling, M.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics, was surprised to find how strong an effect media coverage really did have on parents, an impression shared by John Howser, media director, VUMC News and public Affairs.

"This study validates what we've long suspected, that news coverage of a serious public health issue really does raise public awareness and can have a positive impact on peoples' health."

Poehling predicted it would be a factor, "but I didn't realize how strongly the media coverage would influence the number of people who came to get their children vaccinated. The impact of media attention on influenza illness and deaths in children was very impressive."

Poehling and the other researchers wondered why some parents brought their children in for a flu vaccine, and why some did not.

The study's other authors include Kimberly Ma, a Vanderbilt University School of Medicine student; William Schaffner, M.D., professor and chair of Preventive Medicine and Vanderbilt's principal spokesperson regarding influenza; and VUMC News and Public Affairs staff members John Howser, assistant director, Jerry Jones, information officer and Clinton Colmenares, senior information officer.

Researchers surveyed the parents of 256 children ages 6 months to 59 months (almost 5 years old) who brought their children to VUMC and an affiliated clinic during the summer of 2004.

They were asked if and when their child received a flu vaccine and what influenced their decision to get their child a flu vaccine.

Ninety-eight parents reported their children had received the 2003-04 vaccine, and 64 parents had confirmed influenza dates. Seventy-five percent of the children with confirmed vaccination dates received the vaccine after mid-November 2003. In November and December 2003, there was a spike in media coverage on the influenza season, focusing on the season being early and severe.

Parents said there were many other factors that influenced them to seek a flu vaccination, including physician recommendation, other family members receiving a vaccination and media coverage, among others.

When asked what influenced the decision to get their child vaccinated, 26 percent of parents cited media influence, second to the 60 percent who said it was because of doctors recommendations.

VUMC's Office of News and Public Affairs provided data on local and national media coverage during this influenza season, utilizing the office's media tracking software and other media sources. Coverage was tracked for VUMC references with mentions of "flu" and "influenza" in print, wire services, radio, Internet news and television on the local and national levels.

"It was gratifying for our office to have the opportunity to participate in this study," Howser said.

Poehling said she sees an opportunity for VUMC physicians and researchers to work with the Office of News and Public Affairs to promote other important public health issues, a sentiment Howser echoes.

"News and Public Affairs is always available to assist our faculty with educating the public on the value of the work we do here. In addition to actively promoting clinical and basic science breakthroughs, we are also constantly collecting data regarding our interactions with the news media," Howser said.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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