Currently across the globe, though mainly in the United States and some European countries, misinformation has led to the rise of the anti-vax ideas and beliefs which has dire consequences for health outcomes. This article discusses what the anti-vax movement is, how misinformation has contributed to it, what affects it has on children’s health and safety, and finally how we ought to address it in a smart and informed way.
What is Anti-Vax and Who are Anti-Vaxxers?
Anti-vax is a term for the anti-vaccination movement. A person who participates in the anti-vax movement is an anti-vaxxer. Anti-vaxxers refuse to take vaccines or delay vaccine acceptance despite the evidence supporting vaccination and immunization.
Anti-vaxxers are a very heterogeneous group with diverse, often very personal reasons for not vaccinating. Therefore, it is not accurate to describe anti-vaxxers in simple terms, such as an anti-vaccine movement. Some of the most common anti-vaccine arguments include a relationship between the mumps-measles-rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism, government conspiracy theories, alternative medicine, morality and “vaccine overload,” which refers to the idea that giving multiple vaccines at once may overwhelm or weaken a child’s immune system and cause to harmful effects. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that strongly contradicts these ideas, anti-vaxxers continue to promote myths and misinformation.
Anti-vaxxers effectively disseminate misinformation and false theories via platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. Social media sites have created a direct path for creating, consuming, and sharing unverified, anecdotal information posing as facts, leading to the popularization of anti-vaccination theories.
When Did Anti-Vax Start?
The anti-vax movement started in the 18th century when Reverend Edmund Massey in England called the vaccines “diabolical operations” in his 1772 sermon. He described vaccination as an attempt to oppose God’s punishments upon man for his sins.
Since then, political and legal reasons have also motivated anti-vaccine movements. For example, the Anti-Vaccination League in London created in the mid-19th century in response to the laws in Britain that made it mandatory for parents to vaccinate their children. The league’s mission was to protect the liberties of the people who were being “invaded” by compulsory vaccination laws. Later, in 1898 the British Parliament passed an act in which removed penalties for not abiding by vaccination law, however, even to this day figures like U.S. President Donald Trump, Dr. Robert Sears, Alex Jones, Bill Maher, among other public figures, have continued to express distorted claims about vaccines.
Who is Andrew Wakefield?
Andrew Wakefield is a disgraced British doctor and researcher, who in 1998 published a study in The Lancet that announced that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination was linked to autism spectrum disorder and advised parents against it, thereby fueling the modern anti-vax movement.
Wakefield was subsequently found guilty of several charges by the British General Medical Council, but today, unable to practice in the UK, he has relocated to the US and has become a documentary producer and campaigner on the issue.
The Harm of Vaccine Misinformation
Medical misinformation contributes considerably to inappropriate use of health services, missed opportunities for the right kind of care, and wastes economic resources. Vaccine misinformation is so prevalent that the World Health Organization (WHO) has recently declared the anti-vax movement one of the top 10 risks to global health in 2019.
Misinformation and the Internet
The Internet plays a major role in spreading medical misinformation, including vaccine misconceptions. Online anti-vax authors use numerous tactics to further their agendas. These strategies include, but are not limited to attacking critics, linking common false assertions or theories about vaccines, censoring opposition, and presenting their agendas as “pro-safe vaccines” movements.
Other common tactics include failing to cite the physical or mental damages caused by not vaccinating and frequently omitting evidence to support claims regarding the dangers of vaccination. Unfortunately, social media and anti-vaccination websites have a significant impact on vaccination attitudes.
The Real Anti-Vax Facts
Despite the anti-vaxxer arguments, the medical facts and evidence tell a different story. Vaccine-preventable diseases can range from mild to devastating and life-threatening. For example, polio is a vaccine-preventable disease caused by an enterovirus belonging to the Picornaviridae family. Polio infection can cause long-term and disabling consequences like poliomyelitis, an acute paralytic disease characterized by lower motor neuron damage, and asymmetric persisting flaccid paralysis. The incidence of polio worldwide has decreased by 99% since the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) inception.
Another vaccine-preventable disease with serious complications is measles, a highly contagious airborne disease caused by a virus member of the Paramyxoviridae family. This virus is responsible for more than 100,000 deaths every year worldwide, with Pneumonia accounting for most measles-associated mortality. Other complications from measles include otitis media, diarrhea, conjunctivitis, and progressive central nervous system involvement (subacute sclerosing panencephalitis) with long-term sequelae. Measles vaccination is a cost-effective health intervention associated with a decline in overall death rate and a reduction in the rate of death directly attributable to measles. It is estimated that without the vaccine, 5 million children would die each year from measles assuming an estimated case-fatality rate between 2% to 3%.
Therefore, following false and misleading information about vaccines can cause unacceptable degrees of negative consequences and permanent sequelae in individuals and communities around the world. However, many people don’t know better as a result of low health literacy.
Health Literacy and Immunization
Health literacy refers to the level to which people have the ability to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services. Health literacy is needed to make appropriate health decisions and access and use health care properly. Limited health literacy is associated with reduced adoption of protective behaviors such as vaccination.
Different strategies have been proposed for addressing anti-vax beliefs. In this matter, social media and the internet should be seen as a useful and convenient tool to increase health literacy and overcome practical limitations including time constraints and lack of interests. Thus, creating and scaling health literacy-friendly sites, such as MedlinePlus, OpenMD.com, WebMD, will make it easier for users to access reliable medical information online and learn about medical risks and responsibilities associated with delaying and rejecting some vaccines. Improving health literacy is critical to empowering and enabling individuals to make sound health decisions in the context of everyday life, and to recognize false and misleading information on the internet.
Public institutions around the world should be more engaged in establishing a web presence to provide reliable information, answer common questions, and allow stories and experiences about vaccination to be shared. Convenient, timely, nonjudgmental, and free information is essential to enable citizens to make informed decisions about vaccines. Additionally, supporting health professionals (especially those in communities) need to provide credible and accurate information on vaccines to help increase health literacy among communities and individuals.
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