Countering the anti-vax rhetoric

Jeannie Gibson|21st August 2019

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In May 1980 the World Health Organization (WHO) proclaimed, “smallpox is dead!” on the cover of its magazine. This once feared virus was responsible for 300-500 million deaths in the 20th century, but an international vaccination programme delivered by hundreds of thousands health workers eliminated the disease within a decade.

The global impact of vaccination against infectious diseases is undeniable. Aside from the estimated 6 million deaths that are prevented each year, vaccinations have a hugely positive impact on society. Since 2001, vaccines have saved the world’s poorest countries $350 billion. On top of that, immunisation against diseases such as pneumonia has reduced need for antibiotics and so helped to prevent antimicrobial resistance. Additionally, since the introduction of the HPV vaccination, there has been a 70% reduction of global cervical cancer burden – so, why all the bad press?

Vaccine hesitancy is described as the “delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccination services” and has been around as long as vaccinations have existed. Recent amplification of the problem has resulted in WHO citing vaccine hesitancy as a top 10 threat to global health this year. In order to protect those who have not been vaccinated, coverage rates must remain at a steady, high rate (95% for measles, mumps and rubella) – an effect called herd immunity.

"Parents in the U.S are more likely to seek medical answers online, with 22% using Facebook and 20% using YouTube for advice about their child's health"

Dips in coverage rates have resulted in more than 80,000 people contracting measles in Europe last year causing 72 deaths – triple the number of measles contractions in 2017. However, the hesitancy conversation continues within communities, on and offline. 

WHO ARE THE ANTI-VAXXERS AND WHO’S LISTENING TO THEM?

There are two subsections to the vaccine hesitancy group: those with a fixed mind set - the “anti-vax” community, and the increasingly dangerous “hesitant” group.

The way we search for and consume medical information has changed and now increasing numbers of people turn to the internet to inform their medical decisions. Research shows that parents in the U.S are more likely to seek medical answers online, with 22% using Facebook and 20% using YouTube to get advice about their child’s health.

Without careful regulation, the new parents turning to online communities as an additional (if not exclusive) source of information are exposed to ‘fake news’ and misinformation. These parents can be misguided or scared into changing their positioning from hesitant to fixed, resulting in a dangerous reduction of vaccination rates.

Anti-vaxxers engage the reader with their tone. They say they are the voice of the people, like Trump at a political rally. They use “click-bait” headlines and partake in popular meme culture. They can panic the reader by publishing ‘medical’ claims without the requirement of regulation.

In the information age, where anyone can publish content online, it’s easy to find misinformation quickly and move to a plethora of related content that backs up false claims. Algorithms within platforms feed readers further suggested anti-vax content based on previous activity. Perhaps, most importantly, anti-vax content has the ability to start a conversation within a community, causing further waves of uncertainty or confidence in their hesitancy through solidarity with their peers.

These websites can be made to look official and trustworthy, making it more difficult for the public to perceive which sources are reliable and which are not. Michael Specter, a staff writer at the ‘New York Times’ and author of the book ‘Denialism’ eloquently describes the impact of this, declaring: “We’re living in a world where facts are just another element of your decision-making process.”

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