Health risk communication and amplification: Learning from the MMR vaccination controversy

Judith Petts, Simon Niemeyer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

143 Citations (Scopus)


Immunisation is the cornerstone of childhood disease prevention. In this context the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccination (MMR) has proved a world-wide success, although in the UK it has been at the centre of public controversy since 1998. Through the media, the public domain has witnessed contestation among expert views about the relative risks associated with the diseases vs. the potential side-effects of the vaccination. Attainment of health protection targets has been compromised. The UK Department of Health sought to redress this through a major communication exercise. This paper reports the findings of a study of information strategies that parents use to make sense of health risk issues, particularly MMR. The findings identify the importance of social networks in reinforcing parental understanding and beliefs. While the media are identified as important sources of information, there is no evidence to suggest that parents passively receive and act upon such risk messages. Official information has been able to capitalise on the strong social normalisation of vaccination, but has not responded fully to the evolving social interpretation of risks. The study reveals a preference for personal and face-to-face engagement with health professionals, stressing the importance of user-centred health risk communication.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)7-23
Number of pages17
JournalHealth, Risk and Society
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2004
Externally publishedYes


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