Why is it important that Madam Secretary's attack on misinformation about vaccines


Measles appeared as the villain in the latest episode of the CBS broadcast Madam secretary. The story tells of the risks of hesitating about vaccination – and shows the power of a fictional TV show to communicate facts.

The episode is timely given the recent presence of measles in the news. Epidemics have spread all over the country and tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Amazon have been criticized for allowing false anti-vaccine information to spread on their platforms. But the moment is just a coincidence, according to the show's executive producer, David Grae. same before measles began to make headlines in 2019, the Madam secretary The team had an episode about vaccine hesitancy. "We all know this idea of ​​anti-vaxxing and its dangerousness," says Grae. "The idea that we could lose the immunity of our herd – we really need responsible leadership around the world to make sure that does not happen."

One of the main stories of this episode centers on Secretary of State Press Secretary Daisy Grant (played by Patina Miller), who is returning from a cruise to find herself in quarantine with her young daughter, Joanna. They discover that Joanna's friend, another child from the cruise, was not vaccinated and was infected with measles during the trip. Joanna had received a dose of measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, which according to the salon is 93% effective: Joanna falls in this remaining 7%. She gets out of it, but Joanna's unvaccinated friend suffers from a complication of measles called encephalitis that causes her brain damage.

Madam secretary is, of course, a fiction. But fiction can be a good vector of information – at least when it's done right, according to Beth Hoffman, a research assistant at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Media, Technology and Health Research. Hoffman and his colleagues are studying what viewers are learning about medical stories on television. And in a few different newspapers, they report that television shows are particularly effective at engaging students and the general public, for better or for worse.

In an article, they delved into the scientific literature to find a handful of studies on what viewers remove from medical dramas like The anatomy of Gray. There are not a lot of studies out there. But their review of the research, published in the journal Health Education Research in 2017, reports that people make absorb medical messages from television and could sometimes even change their behaviors depending on what they see on the screen. "Entertainment stories have an effect on perception, knowledge and, ultimately, viewer behavior in health," Hoffman said. Although she does not know of any particular study on vaccination messages, she says, "There is good reason to believe that vaccine-preventable disease stories can have a positive influence on people's perception of vaccination. people."

Madam secretaryS Grae said the entire team felt they were taking on this responsibility and wanted accurate information, especially when it involved a controversial issue such as vaccines. "It would not be artistically responsible to leave room for" Oh, well, maybe it's not going to vaccinate, "he says." And when you want everything to go well, googling is not enough. It's never enough when you have real world problems. "

So, the authors of the series turned to Hollywood, Health & Society, a program of the Annenberg Norman Lear Center of the University of Southern California, which brings together the entertainment industry and experts in health, science and safe. (There is also a similar program in National Science Academies called Science and Entertainment Exchange.) "We understand that this is a fiction and we have to take some liberties," said Kate Folb, Hollywood director, Health & Society. But it's important that public health information is as accurate as possible, she says. "We do not want to misinform the public because we know that it will act accordingly."

According to Folb, some theories explain why. One is that immersion in a plot helps the intellectual defenses of viewers. "Looking for your hero, you walk through the forest with him. You are there with them, "says Folb. "So, if and when the information is presented, it sinks to a much deeper level." and scientific information to be as accurate as possible. "Because you have time," she says.

Peter Hotez, vaccine expert and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, said he had already consulted Hollywood, Health & Society, but did not participate in this episode. And, aside from a few minor concerns – such as the low probability that Joanna will contract measles even though she had only received one dose of vaccine – he applauded how the episode treated measles and hesitation to vaccination. "It was really helpful to have measles as it is: a serious illness," he says. "They did not try to think of it as a mild illness or just a rash, and that's an important point."

The episode addressed many important issues regarding measles and vaccines, including misinformation, Hotez said. In the episode, the mother of the little girl with measles brain complications explains why she did not vaccinate her daughter. She thought that measles had been completely eradicated from the United States and she feared vaccines because of the items she had read. "There were all these articles about the possible dangers of vaccines, then a study claiming that there was no evidence, and then you read another article – and you did not know what to think," says the mother in the show.

The writers and characters they created treat this family with kindness: parents are not blamed for infecting another child, nor ridiculed for believing in anti-vaccine propaganda. They are treated as parents who want to do what is best for their child and who have been misled by the proliferation of alarming anti-vaccination propaganda. This is partly to stay true to the recurring characters of the series and partly for a conscious choice of Madam secretary The team was formed after talking with experts from Hollywood, Health & Society, says Grae. "You do not reach people by scolding them. You reach people by kindly explaining the truth without scolding or telling people that they are stupid. "

Reaching people is something that television is particularly good at, says Hotez, who has written a book on the role of researcher in the field of vaccines and the father of an autistic child. Vaccines do not cause Rachel's autism. "Let's face it, at the end of the day, many more people will watch this episode of Madam secretary what will my book read, "he says.

The episode ends with a public service announcement, where Téa Leoni, who plays the role of secretary of state, invites viewers to visit https://www.unicefusa.org/vax for more information. In the end, the goal of the team is to make a dramatic show, but in this case they also had the chance to educate people. "It's win-win, it's good for everyone. So we are happy to do it, "said Grae.

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