From Data to Policy: Changing the Narrative on Vaccines

by Dr. Natasha Crowcroft

Published July 19, 2019, last updated July 19, 2019, 1:43 a.m.
This is the first blog entry from BRIGHT International’s partnership with Public Health Ontario (PHO). BRIGHT is featuring scientist profiles working to advance health care through innovation. The goal is to engage the general public, healthcare professionals, policy makers and scientists to initiate discussions and knowledge exchange on health innovation.

The potential for vaccines to prevent serious illnesses and save lives relies on both its effectiveness and uptake. PHO is leading efforts in both aspects, as well as bridging the two. At PHO, data from the lab is first cross referenced with reports of confirmed individuals with disease. Then, these reports are linked with population-based health and social data from the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences, where Dr. Crowcroft is also an adjunct scientist. Combining different sources of data generates more accurate insight into the proportion of individuals who have been vaccinated. Comparing this proportion with the burden of each infectious disease, we can estimate how well a vaccine is working. Over time, we can track both the uptake and effectiveness of vaccines. These trends help inform the development of new vaccines such as Respiratory Syncytial Virus and Group B Streptococcus for the pediatric population. By employing high standards for quality research, PHO ensures validity in the reports generated. The published results directly inform public policy, healthcare guidelines as well as social attitudes.

Maintaining a strong presence in the news and social media is also a priority for PHO. Many Ontarians rely on the news, Twitter and Facebook articles for health information. Dr. Crowcroft is enthusiastic about leveraging these interactive digital platforms to debunk myths about vaccines and present factual and credible information on the importance of immunization. She has shared her expertise through Twitter and interviews with numerous local and national news sources. In particular, Dr. Crowcroft is passionate about changing the narrative on vaccines from one that focuses on the complex scientific data to one that demonstrates how vaccines work with your body to make it stronger. Vaccines are not new experiments; in fact, they are one of the oldest health technologies on the market today. They originate from nature and augment the body’s own immune system.

While it is important for the public to receive accurate information about vaccines, it is the responsibility of healthcare professions to keep up to date. Dr. Crowcroft champions early and continuous education about immunization for healthcare professionals. She notes the importance of self-study after graduation and recommends consulting resources such as Immunize Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada and the National Advisory Committee on Immunization. Ultimately, it is the healthcare providers who will be having the conversations about vaccines and administering them to patients, and it is vitally important that these providers have the information and tools they need to answer questions and concerns about vaccination and combat vaccine myths.

Connecting research, policy and public outreach, Dr. Crowcroft shared some insider knowledge into the development of the Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases based at U of T, of which she is the director. The vision is to catalyze and enable cutting-edge research and education that maximizes the health benefits of immunization for everyone. For more information, please visit this website.

Dr. Natasha Crowcroft is the Chief Science Officer at PHO and a professor at U of T’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. She is an expert in vaccine-preventable disease research, and she shares insight into how data-driven research in the labs of PHO translate into social media messages that impact public attitudes about vaccines.