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Pandemic-era misinformation erodes confidence in all vaccines, Penn researchers find in new survey

A University of Pennsylvania study found that only 71% agreed that vaccines in the U.S. are safe.

Mandy Cohen, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, got a flu vaccine in September in Atlanta.
Mandy Cohen, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, got a flu vaccine in September in Atlanta.Read moreMike Stewart / AP

A steady flow of misinformation about COVID-19 and its vaccines has weakened public confidence in long-established vaccines that protect against other diseases, University of Pennsylvania researchers said Thursday, citing a new national survey.

In the October survey of 1,559 people by Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, just 71% agreed with the statement “vaccines approved for use in the U.S. are safe” — despite overwhelming evidence for their safety — down from 77% in April 2021.

The decline threatens to erode decades of hard-won public health protections, center director Kathleen Hall Jamieson said.

“I’m generally an optimist, and this survey calls into question that disposition,” she said.

She blamed the decline on a “conservative ecosystem” that sought to undermine the credibility of public health experts encouraging Americans to get the COVID vaccine, such as CDC officials and Anthony Fauci, the former White House chief medical advisor.

Republicans are less likely than Democrats to get the COVID vaccines, polling by KFF has found. Still, anti-vaccine messaging is not limited to conservatives. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is running for president as an independent, has long faced criticism for spreading unscientific claims about vaccines.

“We’ve had extended, ongoing discourse attacking vaccination by voices that had credibility with certain audiences,” she said.

The decline in vaccine confidence in the new Penn survey was statistically significant, meaning that if surveyors were to redo the survey 20 times, polling similarly representative samples of the U.S. population, they would expect to see such a decline in 19 of those 20 cases.

In addition to the question about the safety of all vaccines, the survey included questions about the perceived safety and effectiveness of individual vaccines. Public confidence in several of them declined in little over a year, despite decades of evidence supporting their use, pollsters found.

When asked about the vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella, for example, 8% said the shot was very or somewhat ineffective, up from 4% in August 2022. Asked about the safety of that vaccine, 9% said it was very or somewhat unsafe, up from 6% a year earlier.

The same trend held true in several questions about the COVID vaccines.

Asked to evaluate the statement “it’s safer to get the COVID−19 vaccine than to get COVID−19,” 21% of those surveyed said it was definitely or probably false, up from 16% a year ago and 10% in April 2021.

For Jamieson, the most worrisome figure was the 71% who agreed that approved vaccines are safe. To prevent outbreaks of disease, vaccines typically must be administered to more than 90% of the population. Surveyors did not ask whether respondents had gotten various vaccines, but in the past, they have found that perceptions of a vaccine’s safety are strongly correlated with willingness to get it.

She said one strategy to counter unscientific views is to enlist credible spokespeople outside the public-health realm.

“You’re looking for your athletes, your celebrities, anybody whose credibility has not been undermined,” she said.

The survey was conducted for the Annenberg Center by SSRS, an independent market research company.