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When people need advice about topics like health, careers, or relationships, the first place they often look is the internet. The same is true when parents and caregivers are seeking credible information about whether vaccines are safe for their children. However, finding that information often isn't easy. In recent years a number of websites providing unbalanced, misleading, and alarming vaccine safety information have been established, prompting a wave of undue fears.
"Every day, misinformation about vaccines continues to proliferate on the internet," says Isabelle Sahinovic, Vaccine Safety Net coordinator at the World Health Organization (WHO). "This is dangerous. We need to make sure that all parents, caregivers, and health care professionals can easily access accurate and trustworthy information about vaccines."
WHO’s Vaccine Safety Net, a global network of vaccine safety websites, aims to do just this. Today, the network has 47 member websites in 12 languages. It is estimated that more than 173 million users every month access VSN websites that contain, among other information, credible vaccine safety information.
WHO evaluates candidate websites using criteria defined by the Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety – an independent, authoritative and scientific committee that advises the Organization on vaccine safety issues of global or regional concern that could impact national immunization programs.
An initial check ensures that sites have a public health focus, contain current evidence-based and unbiased information on vaccine safety, are clearly written, and easily navigated. Websites also are ineligible to join the network if they represent industry. VSN sites must be reviewed and updated at least every two years. Once through the initial screening process, the VSN evaluation team then examines the website using a set of 34 formal assessment criteria.
To become part of the Vaccine Safety Network, websites must be transparent in saying who owns, manages, and pays for the content they host, and also have processes in place to validate the sources of the information they publish.
"Our evaluations mean that internet users can feel confident that they can trust the information they are reading," says Sahinovic.
Vaccine Safety Net is now working to grow the number of evaluated websites, especially in additional languages, such as Arabic, or from a geographical location not yet covered by the network such as the Balkans.
The network is also expanding its evaluation criteria to cover social media channels. It is currently piloting the process for reviewing Facebook pages to help get trustworthy vaccine safety messages to more diverse audiences.
"Websites help people make informed health decisions, but they should not replace having a conversation with your doctor," warns Patrick Zuber, WHO medical officer.