Vaccination has been one of the world’s biggest achievements when it comes to health and ensuring that diseases that once wiped out millions of the population – such as smallpox and the plague – does not repeat itself in history.
However, the anti-vaccination movement or ‘anti-vaxxers’ has gained momentum especially with the advancement of technology and social media. The movement began around the 1990s but after reports were discredited and research disproved any claims, it died down for a while but with the increase in the volume of social media groups promoting it, there has been a concern about the negative impact of it.
When did the movement all begin?
It all began when a once respectable journal called Lancet, published widely discredited research on MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccines by Andrew Wakefield, a former British doctor and researcher in 2000. He, along with several other co-authors, claimed to have found a link between developmental disabilities like autism and the MMR vaccine among kids who have received it.
The article was later withdrawn, and Wakefield stripped of his medical licence and removed from the United Kingdom’s medical register in 2010.
MMR vaccination rates in the UK collapsed from above 90 per cent to 79 per cent in January 2003, well below the WHO recommended vaccination rate of 90 per cent.
A measles outbreak then took place in Wales in 2013, infecting more than 1,000 people, mostly children which required an emergency distribution of 50,000 MMR vaccines to prevent the spread of the disease.
Wakefield then moved to the United States of America and became a documentary producer and campaigner against vaccinations there. His documentary, “Vaxxer” is available on popular streaming platforms.
What are the theories against vaccination?
These are a few of them:
- Wakefield’s study had unfortunately led many to believe that there is a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. However, it is merely a matter of understanding the diagnosis of autism and scientific research has still found no links between the two.
- There are those who argue that vaccines are entirely capitalist and that companies who make them do so to profit out of it. However, that is untrue as companies would instead profit more if they made commercial drugs instead of vaccines. One vaccine last almost a lifetime which means it is a one-time cost-effective strategy against diseases.
- Anti-vaxxers say that children have died after receiving the vaccine but reports otherwise show that children and adults who get a measles vaccine don’t die from it rather than those who did not get vaccinated.
- There have been rumours that vaccines contain chemicals for preservation, such as mercury that would hinder the neurological development of children, thus prompting anti-vaxxers to campaign against their use.
- There has been a wave of ‘organic’ food, etc., and vaccines has not escaped that category. Celebrities, too, promote the campaign by not vaccinating their child and saying they want them to grow ‘organically’ and that the chemicals used in vaccines would somehow disrupt their growth. Examples include Charlie Sheen, Kat Von D and Alicia Silverstone.
What is the scale of the problem?
According to the World Health Organisation, measles cases has tripled across Europe in 2018 and almost six-fold across the United States.
New York declared a public health emergency as there was an outbreak of measles in 153 known cases in a county. In 2000, the US had declared themselves ridden of the disease. It should be noted that those who have contracted the disease are unvaccinated children.
Madacasgar, France and Mexico have also witness outbreaks of the disease. Ukraine witnessed the highest number of cases at almost 53,000 reported to be having the disease in 2018.
In the United Kingdom, the proportion of children receiving the MMR vaccine has fallen to 87.5 per cent, well-below the 95 per cent target set by WHO in order to achieve ‘herd immunity.’ London has the lowest immunisation rate at 85.1 per cent, according to the latest figures from the NHS.
What role does social media have to play in the rise of this movement?
There is no doubt the influential role that social media has in today’s world. The youth use it to communicate, learn as well as to promote and the ‘anti-vaxx’ campaign becomes one of them. People are able to create virtual groups of like-minded people who then seek out and share information that they are comfortable with.
Facebook has been facing flak due to allowing content related to the issue to be promoted on their website. There are pages and groups that campaign and spread disinformation. Instagram and Pinterest, too, face the same problem.
Crowdfunding for the campaign has also been taking place with one campaigner gathering nearly £60,000 in donations (the man raised money for the campaign by using Facebook advertisements as his promotional platform).
Social media companies are now under extreme pressure to control the narrative of the campaign but also maintain a line between censorship and preventing the spread of misinformation.
Youtube has demonetised videos about the topic, Pinterest has updated their community guidelines and disallowed pins about anti-vaccination (75% of anti-vaccination posts were active on this site) and Facebook which also owns Instagram has said that they have reduced the ‘prominence’ of such posts.
What can we do about it?
The only way we can stop the spread of disinformation is to tackle it with more information.
There have been concerns that by censoring the campaigns and groups related to anti-vaxxers, their opinion too is being censored. However, it is a fine line between ensuring freedom of expression and censoring material for the sake of overall public health and safety.
We can ensure that families and parents are educated about the benefits of vaccination and provide concrete, scientific evidence to prove those doubtful by working together with health organisations as well as by using social media as the platform to spread the right information.
Everyone should be made aware. Governments need to implement initiatives that would encourage citizens to vaccinate and ensure that campaigns that say otherwise are clamped down purely on the basis of lack of scientific evidence.
The Whole Health Organisation has declared anti-vaccination as one of the top global health threats in 2019 – along with Ebola, air pollution, etc.