New project seeks to improve public health campaigns by examining language around vaccinations

A £1 million project, led by Lancaster University, which aims to achieve a better understanding of how the public view vaccinations, has just been announced.

Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the ‘Questioning Vaccination Discourse’ Project (or Quo VaDis – Latin for ‘Where are you going?’) applies the latest techniques for large-scale computer-aided discourse analysis.

Researchers will investigate how the public speak and write about vaccinations, including future Covid-19 vaccines, in social media discussions in English, UK Parliamentary debates and UK national press reports.

The goal is to arrive at a better understanding of pro- and anti-vaccination views, as well as undecided views, which will inform future public health campaigns.

The project will be based in the world-renowned ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science (CASS) at Lancaster University, which was awarded a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2015.

The research will be carried out by an interdisciplinary team consisting of linguists (Professor Elena Semino, Dr Claire Hardaker, Dr Vaclav Brezina and William Dance), a virologist (Dr Derek Gatherer) and a policy expert (Professor Robert Geyer), in collaboration with linguists from University College London (Dr Zsófia Demjén) and Leeds University (Professor Alice Deignan).

The team will work with three main project partners: Public Health England, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport.

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) list of top ten global health threats includes ‘vaccine hesitancy’ – ‘a delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccination services’.

Vaccination programmes are currently estimated to prevent between 2 and 3 million deaths a year worldwide.

However, uptake of vaccinations in 90% of countries has been reported to be affected by vaccine hesitancy.

In England, coverage for all routine childhood vaccinations is in decline, resulting in the resurgence of communicable diseases that had previously been eradicated.

In August 2019, the UK lost its WHO measles elimination status.

“The reasons for vaccine hesitancy are complex, but they need to be understood to be addressed effectively,” says Professor Elena Semino, of Lancaster University, who is leading the project.

“This project focuses on discourse because the ways in which controversial topics such as vaccinations are talked about both reflect and shape beliefs and attitudes, which may in turn influence behaviour. This has become even more urgent with the Covid-19 pandemic and the unprecedented speed at which vaccines are being developed.”

This project will involve the analysis of multi-million-word datasets using the computer-aided methods of Corpus Linguistics – a branch of linguistics that involves the construction of large digital collections of naturally-occurring texts (known as ‘corpora’) and their analysis through tailor-made software.

“In this way, we will identify and investigate the different ways in which views about vaccinations are expressed in our data, for example, through patterns in choices of vocabulary, pronouns, negation, evaluation, metaphors, narratives, sources of evidence, and argumentation,” added Professor Semino.

“We will reveal both differences and similarities in pro- and anti-vaccination views over time and across different groups of people, particularly as they form and interact on social media.

“Our findings will make a major contribution to an understanding of views about vaccinations both in the UK and internationally.

“Through the involvement of our Project Partners these findings will feed into the design of future public health campaigns about vaccinations.”

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