Heidi Larson, vaccine anthropologist

Heidi Larson, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, studies vaccine rumors—how they start, and why some flourish and others wither. Public-health experts often address vaccine hesitancy on an informational basis, by debunking rumors and misinformation. But, in her recent book, “Stuck: How Vaccine Rumors Start—and Why They Don’t Go Away,”

Larson argues for a more expansive view of the problem. “We should look at rumors as an eco-system, not unlike a microbiome,” she writes. Tackling misperceptions individually is like eliminating a single microbial strain: when one germ is gone, another will bloom. Instead, the entire ecosystem must be rehabilitated. Her team works in an epidemiological spirit, hoping to contain outbreaks of misinformation swiftly, before they can spread.

Danielle Ofri profiles her in the New Yorker. Interestingly Larson worked for a while at Apple Computer and at Xerox PARC.

A successful vaccination effort, Larson explains, requires the public to trust the scientists who create the vaccine, the companies that manufacture it, the health-care workers who inject it, and the governments that oversee the process. “That trust chain is a far more important lever of acceptance than any piece of information,” she writes. The chain is made more fragile by “the feeling of being disenfranchised and not heard.” […]

Health experts often speak of the need to improve public understanding of science. “That’s not what it’s about,” she told me. “We need science understanding the public.” […]

In an e-mail not long ago, Larson told me that the Vaccine Confidence Project [that she is part of] will be broadening its ambit, becoming simply the Confidence Project. “We are increasingly looking at vaccines as a window into a broader mix of experiences and emotions,” she wrote. For many of our most critical societal issues—climate change, civil peace, national security, democracy—trust is the only currency we have. The project’s expanded goal, Larson explained, will be to understand how trust is created, eroded, and hopefully rebuilt.