Tweets from individuals who did – or didn’t – choose to receive flu vaccinations this past year are being analyzed to explore reasons behind these choices and how attitudes differ among groups. Scientists from George Washington University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Georgia have identified millions of tweets mentioning concerns about vaccines and geolocated the messages. The researchers will also utilize traditional survey methods to reach people who refused flu vaccines. “Survey data tend to draw from older, white, rural households, whereas younger, urban minorities are overrepresented on Twitter. These two techniques complement each other perfectly,” said Karen Hilyard, assistant professor in the College of Public Health at the University of Georgia. So far, their results show that states with a higher number of residents who received the flu shot had a higher number of vaccine-positive messages on Twitter. 

Mark Dredze, assistant research professor in the Department of Computer Science at Johns Hopkins University, will develop new computer algorithms to support the team’s research. “We hope to gain insights into people’s reasoning about vaccines by automatically processing millions of Twitter messages,” Dredze said.

“People really do tweet about everything and conversations about vaccines are no exception,” said David Broniatowski, assistant professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at the George Washington University, who will co-lead the study on vaccine refusal patterns. “Parents and patients freely share their fears and concerns about vaccines. While it typically takes years to collect meaningful information about why people refuse vaccines, using surveys and searching Twitter brings immediate results.”

The research will be used by health officials to plan better responses to the next outbreak.

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