Dr Google and Mr Yahoo – searching for vax info

There are mixed results for the quality of online information on vaccination, according to a recent study.

“An audit of the quality of online immunisation information available to Australian parents”, was published on BMC Public Health and written by researchers from the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance and the Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney.

It found that Australian parents, when searching for immunisation information, are largely finding technically correct information which isn’t well attributed and without explanatory depth. Conversely there are some sites which provide well-referenced highly technical information, which is challenging for the general public to understand when assessed against usual health literacy conventions.

The study adds that this information is often not easily identified in the initial stages of searching.

“Our findings suggest a need for information which is easily found, transparently authored, well-referenced, and written in such a way that highly technical information is conveyed in an easily understood format informed by an understanding of parents’ needs and cognitions associated with interpreting health information.”

The authors used Google trends to identify the most common immunisation search terms used in Australia. The ten most common terms were entered into five search engines and the first ten non-commercial results from each search collated. A quality assessment tool was developed using the World Health Organisation Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety (GACVS) criteria for assessing the quality of vaccine safety web sites, and used to assess and score the quality of the sites.

Seven hundred web pages were identified, of which 514 were duplicates, leaving 186 pages from 115 web sites which were audited. Forty sites did not include human immunisation information, or presented personal opinion about individuals, and were not scored. Of the 75 sites quality scored, 65 (87%) were supportive of immunisation, while 10 (13%) were not supportive. The overall mean quality score was 57/100 (range 14/100 to 92/100). When stratified by pro and anti-vaccination stance, the average quality score for pro-vaccine sites was 61/100, while the average score for anti-vaccine sites was 30/100.

To gain perspective on what parents saw at the top of their search results, the authors analysed the first web page returned by each search. This analysis of 70 “top hits” revealed that 64 (91%) were supportive of immunisation. The remaining 6 pages (8%) were not supportive of vaccination, most of which were published by the Australian Vaccination Sceptics Network (the main anti-vaccine lobby group in Australia).

When these “top hits” were viewed by search engine, Yahoo returned the highest number of pages which were not supportive of vaccination across the search terms, with three hits (all from the AVSN). Google followed with two hits (both also from the AVSN), while ASK returned one hit for a book on Amazon which offered alternatives to vaccination. Neither Lycos nor Bing returned pages not supportive of vaccination as a first hit for any of the search terms.

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