Professor Julie Leask wins AFR Women of Influence award

22 October 2019
‘Fence-sitter’ vaccination strategy goes global
Professor Julie Leask has been named as the overall winner in the Australian Financial Review's 100 Women of Influence awards for her pioneering work in addressing vaccination rates in Australia and internationally.

The AFR 100 Women of Influence list is committed to increasing the visibility of women’s leadership in Australia by celebrating women for using their skills and talents to advocate for change and to benefit society.

A social scientist in the University of Sydney’s Susan Wakil School of Nursing and Midwifery, Professor Leask studies what people think, feel and do about vaccination. She is dedicated to increasing the take-up of vaccination by focusing on the root cause of why families don’t vaccinate.

“It is a popular misunderstanding that people don’t vaccinate solely because they are given ‘fake news’ about the safety of vaccination," said Professor Leask.

"The truth is that most people who have chosen not to vaccinate do so because of a previous bad experience or because they have an alternative belief system. People most likely to be persuaded to vaccinate are the undecided.”

Professor Leask's maternal grandmother was opposed to medical interventions of all kinds, so her own mother did not vaccinate her children until challenged by a doctor.

An important factor in Professor Leask’s work is understanding human nature and the power of persuasion.
Dr Michael Spence, Vice-Chancellor and Principal

As a former midwife, Professor Leask worked with teenage mothers who were unpersuaded by health messages that simply told them what to do. As a result, she learnt instead “that changing people who are resistant requires working with their own motivations”.

In 2011 Professor Leask published a commissioned paper for the prestigious journal Nature that called for solutions to the vaccine hesitancy problem. There followed global acknowledgement of the need to target the fence-sitters, rather than entrenched vaccine refusers.

Today Professor Leask is chair of the World Health Organization (WHO) Working Group on Measuring Behavioural and Social Drivers of Vaccination, which is creating tools for countries to diagnose the causes of low vaccination rates.

In Australia she founded the Collaboration on Social Science in Immunisation. She is often asked why there are so many Australians in this field now that national research in social and behavioural aspects of vaccination is getting global recognition.

Professor Julie Leask in the University of Sydney Quadrangle

As a visiting professorial fellow at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, Professor Leask was responsible for establishing its social science program. Apart from being an adviser to the WHO on vaccination, she has also advised UNICEF, the European Office of the WHO, the US President’s Cancer Panel and the American and Australian governments on vaccination policy.

Congratulating her on the award Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Dr Michael Spence, said, “I’m delighted for Professor Leask and for her colleagues named in the 100 Women of Influence list. An important factor in Professor Leask’s work is understanding human nature and the power of persuasion.

"This insight and her leadership have had an impact on vaccination rates and therefore on reducing human suffering, an impressive and ongoing achievement.”

Professor Leask leads a team of nine postdoctoral researchers and PhD students. Together they are learning why only 20 percent of children get an influenza vaccine and why emergency nurses aren’t recommending vaccination enough; but also recognising successes such as how immunisation rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander five-year-olds are now higher than non-Aboriginal children.  

This week the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance launched the final part of Sharing Knowledge About Immunisation, a suite of tools to help health professionals have conversations with parents who hesitate or refuse to vaccinate, that includes a dedicated website. Professor Leask, describes the initiative as “a labour of love produced with an incredible team”. 

In a lovely gesture of acclaim from her team in 2016 ‘What would Julie do?’ mousepads were suddenly seen in the office of her staff.

“This whimsical gesture was a moment of realisation - to embrace my leadership role and use it for good,” Professor Leask said.

“I’m incredibly proud to have received this recognition from the Australian Financial Review in the company of so many amazing women contributing to social change. I hope all of us inspire other women to use their power and influence for the good of the community.”

The seventh year of the Australian Financial Review's 100 Women of Influence list continued to acknowledge the contribution of the University of Sydney academics to the community. In addition to Professor Leask finalists were:

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