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News • Herd immunity explained in virtual reality

Using VR to win over vaccine skeptics

People who are sceptical of getting vaccinated against infectious diseases may soon get a whole new perspective on things.

Professor Robert Böhm and Associate Professor Guido Makransky from the Center for Social Data Science (SODAS) and the Department of Psychology at the University of Copenhagen have received DKK three million in funding from EIT Health for developing a virtual reality app to communicate herd immunity in vaccine advocacy.

Such a game-like virtual reality app will help people to better understand the social benefits of vaccinations

Robert Böhm

Vaccine hesitancy poses a severe threat to the elimination of infectious diseases. There are various reasons for vaccine hesitancy, one of them being a lack of knowledge in the social benefits from vaccinations due to so-called ‘herd immunity’ or ‘community protection’. Professor Robert Böhm and Associate Professor Guido Makransky have received funding from EIT Health for developing a training program in virtual reality to explain to people how herd immunity works and what societal consequences it has.

Herd immunity describes the effect that a virus cannot spread if many people are vaccinated. Eventually, the disease can be eliminated if vaccination rates are sufficiently high. Herd immunity thus allows to protect people who are not able to get vaccinated themselves, such as babies or people with certain chronic diseases. As a consequence, vaccination also poses as prosocial act to protect others. Yet, the underlying dynamics of herd immunity are complicated and many people either don’t know about it or don’t understand it. The research team is going to use the benefits of virtual reality to let people truly experience herd immunity in a virtual environment. "Such a game-like virtual reality app will help people to better understand the social benefits of vaccinations", says Robert Böhm.

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Vaccine hesitancy threatens global health

Globally, a trend of falling public trust in vaccines is alarming health officials and the World Health Organisation (WHO) lists vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health. The UK’s Wellcome Trust 2018 Global Monitor – a survey of more than 140,000 people in over 140 countries – highlighted regions where confidence in vaccinations is lowest.

The application is not just relevant in connection with the corona situation. In 2019, WHO concluded that vaccine hesitancy constitutes one of the 10 greatest threats to public health on a global basis. For instance, several European countries have seen recent cases of measles, and on a global basis 400,000 cases of this serious disease were recorded in 2019. Robert Böhm and Guido Makransky therefore plan to develop and test an app until the end of 2021 which can be adapted for different vaccines as well as for different cultural and sociodemographic backgrounds. Makransky notes that “the app could be used by general practitioners and other health professionals in vaccine advocacy.”

The project will be conducted together with collaborators at ETH Zürich and at the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin.

Source: University of Copenhagen


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