SAJU: Digitally enabled misinformation will lead to next outbreak

Opinion Column: Pride, Not Prejudice

From Jan. 1 to Feb. 21, there were 159 individual confirmed cases of measles across 10 states. Last year, New York and New Jersey counted for more than half the measles cases in America. Similar outbreaks have occurred in 2014 and 2017 in Minnesota and California respectively. 

The danger of a contagious disease spreading like wildfire is exceptionally high in places like Texas, where there are 60,000 unvaccinated children. Vaccine hesitancy is defined as the resistance to lifesaving available vaccination — the World Health Organization has ranked it as 1 of the top 10 health threats for the world in 2019.  

Vaccine hesitancy allows for once-eradicated diseases to plague society again. Despite the growing scientific consensus that vaccines are safe and they do not cause autism, there is a stubborn minority of people that refuse to vaccinate themselves and their children. Vaccines are one of the triumphs of modern medicine. Yet, despite a safe and effective history, the anti-vaccination movement continues to grow because of fear-mongering and poor science

There are two main groups that merged to form the anti-vaccination movement of today: people who blame the mumps-measles-rubella (MMR) vaccine for autism and people who attribute mercury toxicity to human illness. These two groups combined on the issue of thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative in some vaccines. 

In the 1990s there was a supposed increase in the number of autism cases (autism, or autism spectrum disorder, which refers to a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication) that many people linked to an increased number of vaccines that children were receiving. 

In reality, the real reason for the increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder is due to the effects of expanding the diagnosis and increasing the surveillance to spot the disorder. There have been numerous independent lines of evidence that prove that there is no link between vaccines and autism. 

So, how did we allow this issue to grow into a public safety hazard? 

The answer is simple: Misinformation. Anti-vaccine propaganda has outpaced pro-vaccine health information on the internet because those who support the anti-vaccination movement (colloquially referred to as anti-vaxxers) have created hundreds of websites that promote their message. 

The defense against this misinformation has not reached the same level of public attention, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a website with the correct information but no prominent internet presence. Furthermore, the United States Surgeon General’s office and the White House (this administration as well as previous ones) have both not done enough to directly discredit the anti-vaxxer’s pseudoscience. 

Companies have taken steps to curb the spreading misinformation. Pinterest, a social media website that 80 percent of mothers and 38 percent of fathers in the United States use, has achieved progress to stop anti-vaxxer propaganda. While other companies like Facebook and YouTube have taken steps to limit propaganda, only Pinterest has chosen to banish results associated with certain vaccine-related searches, regardless of whether the results might have been reputable. 

When you type in "vaccination," "vaccine" or "anti-vax" in the search bar, nothing comes up. But, it must be noted that social media is not the correct location to find accurate medical information. Using accredited official government websites is the only way to make sure that the information is scientifically accurate. 

This is a time when news stories are reporting on children who choose to get vaccinated as soon as they turn 18 and minors who are sneaking out to get vaccinated behind their parents’ backs. These kids understand the importance of getting vaccinated at a time when the very scientific integrity of vaccine science is in question. They know what the risks are, even when their parents do not want to understand the dangers. 

Moreover, the consequences that come with not vaccinating are serious: A surge in measles, mumps, pertussis and other diseases, an increase in influenza deaths and increased dismissal rates of the HPV vaccines (doctors state that an increased acceptance rate of the human papilloma virus vaccine could effectively end cervical cancer). 

 Heidi Larson, a professor at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that the next major disease outbreak will not be because of a lack of advanced technology, but due to an “emotional contagion, digitally enabled.” 

Neha Saju is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student planning on majoring in political science and history and minoring in English. Her column, "Pride, Not Prejudice," runs on alternate Mondays.


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