Almost 20 years after measles was declared “eliminated” in the United States, it has roared back. There have been more cases of measles in just four months of 2019 than in any year of the last two decades. Measles is a vaccine-preventable disease, but vaccination must be almost universally accepted by a community to protect its members, and specific areas in the U.S. have not been reaching adequate vaccination levels. To improve the recent measles outbreaks, we must understand modern anti-vaccination sentiments.
The modern anti-vaccination movement is often traced to the fraudulent 1998 study by Andrew Wakefield that found a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. Ten years later, The Lancet retracted the study, but the damage was done and still persists.
Social media and the internet have not helped the situation. The internet offers anti-vaccination activists an international platform to promote conspiracy theories and connect with worried parents. Parents, in turn, have been widely misinformed. Even brief exposure to anti-vaccine information, found rampantly on social media, lowers perceived risk about the disease and, importantly, intent to vaccinate.
Now more than ever, health experts and community leaders need to be active on social media to combat the vast amounts of vaccine misinformation circulating while public health officials move to mandate vaccinations for school-aged children.
What does today’s anti-vaccine landscape look like – is it as simple as ‘vaccines cause autism?’ A recent study suggests that there is far more nuance.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh analyzed Facebook comments on a pro-vaccine post by a Pittsburgh-area pediatric clinic. The post was a 90-second informational video for the human papilloma virus vaccine. Within a month, it generated several thousand anti-vaccine comments. The researchers randomly selected 197 responses and associated accounts. From those accounts, they analyzed the owners’ public posts for common themes in anti-vaccine content. The researchers found that many of these posts shared the same anti-vaccine stories and photos with information traceable to purportedly “pro-science” Facebook groups.
Posts generally fell under the following themes: trust, safety, conspiracy, and alternatives. Some common suggestions were that vaccines spontaneously cause unrelated illnesses, are a violation of civil liberties, and that governments are covering-up negative vaccine effects. Additionally, many posts suggested unstudied alternatives to vaccines that might offer protection against measles. This analysis contributes to a growing understanding about the many factors driving vaccine hesitancy.
Misconceptions surrounding the safety and efficacy of vaccines have always been present. Now more than ever, health experts and community leaders need to be active on social media to combat the vast amounts of vaccine misinformation circulating while public health officials move to mandate vaccinations for school-aged children. Protecting communities will require helping concerned parents understand that their children’s health is threatened not by vaccinations, but rather inaction.