Anti-Vaccination Debate Fuels Measles Outbreaks

Misinformation and fear spread through social media have contributed to a rise in cases of infectious disease.

By Don Rauf


Despite the fact that the measles vaccine is proven to be effective, opposition to vaccination persists for a variety of reasons.

Measles, a highly contagious disease that was considered eliminated in this country in 2000, is making a comeback. Outbreaks have been reported this year in New York, Texas, and Washington State, as well as in Canada and overseas. The underlying reason for the uptick appears to be fear and misinformation about vaccination, much of it spread through social media.

Most measles cases occur among unvaccinated individuals, despite the existence of a highly effective vaccine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one dose of measles vaccine is about 93 percent effective at preventing the disease, and two doses are 97 percent effective in people exposed to the virus. Yet the anti-vaccination debate rages on.


Risk of Unvaccinated Travelers Spreading the Measles Virus

Measles outbreaks are usually linked to travelers who brought the virus back from other countries where the disease is still common. That’s why the CDC stresses that you should get vaccinated before traveling.


“We have a lot of different communities who are unvaccinated; and as long as measles is a car or plane ride away, we have to address vaccine hesitancy,” Melnick says.


A recent measles outbreak in Vancouver, British Columbia, is believed to have originated with a family that had returned from a trip to Southeast Asia.


Emmanuel Bilodeau told CBC News that his three sons likely contracted measles during a trip to Vietnam and that it then spread at the schools his children attend. He said that the boys had not been vaccinated because of fears that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine might be linked to autism, despite the lack of any evidence.


In the United States, the CDC recorded 372 incidents of measles last year. So far in 2019, the tally has surpassed 120 nationwide. The situation is even more serious in other countries.


In the Philippines, more than 4,300 have developed measles since the beginning of the year. Measles incidents tripled in Europe, skyrocketing from 25,500 in 2017 to almost 83,000 in 2018, with the largest number (more than 54,000) reported in Ukraine. In Japan, the National Institute of Infectious Diseases is reporting the worst measles outbreak in a decade.


Trolls, Bots, and Social Media Misinformation

Much of the information online appears to be intentionally spread to raise doubts and foster confusion about the benefits and risks of vaccination.


A recent report by The Guardian found that “Facebook search results for groups and pages with information about vaccines were dominated by anti-vaccination propaganda, and that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm steers viewers from fact-based medical information toward anti-vaccine misinformation.”


A study published in October 2018 in the American Journal of Public Health found that Russian trolls (which it defines as “individuals who misrepresent their identities with the intention of promoting discord”) and bots (“accounts that automate content promotion,” according to the study's authors) have been spreading health misinformation online to amplify the vaccine debate.


“Given that we found these troll accounts to be the same as those identified by the [special counsel Robert] Mueller investigation [into the Russian government for] trying to interfere in U.S. elections, the tweets seem to be part of a more general pattern of stirring the pot, spreading discord in U.S. discourse,” says lead author David Broniatowski, PhD, a research professor at George Washington University’s School of Engineering and Applied Science in Washington, DC.


Surprisingly, Broniatowski notes that the tweets were almost 50-50, either pro-vaccine or anti-vaccine.


“There is solid evidence that if you expose people to the idea that there is a debate, that increases their hesitation,” he says. “Creating this 50-50 exposure between pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine forces can cause people not to vaccinate or at least delay vaccination. As a result, that exposes us all to the risk of epidemics.”


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