Public Health

Stopping the scourge of social media misinformation on vaccines

Andis Robeznieks , Senior News Writer

It is common that patient searches for information and products related to the word “vaccine” yield top results pointing to harmfully inaccurate information about immunization safety. This place of prominence given to medical disinformation is deeply troubling to America’s physicians, especially amid alarming new reports regarding measles, tetanus and other vaccine-preventable conditions.  

The AMA sent a letter to top executives at Amazon, Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Twitter and YouTube urging them to do even more to stem the “proliferation” of “health-related misinformation” that has helped vaccine-preventable diseases to reemerge. 

“We applaud companies that have already taken action but encourage you to continue evaluating the impact of these policies and take further steps to address the issue as needed,” AMA Executive Vice President and CEO James L. Madara, MD, wrote in the letter to the social media and digital technology executives. “The overwhelming scientific evidence shows that vaccines are among the most effective and safest interventions to both prevent individual illness and protect public health.” 

Dr. Madara noted that, when immunization rates are high, children who are too young to be vaccinated and others whose health conditions prevent them from being vaccinated, are protected from disease because exposure is so limited. These conditions include allergies to vaccine components, HIV infection and having a compromised immune system as a result of receiving chemotherapy cancer treatment. 

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The impact of lower vaccination rates has been clear. The World Health Organization named vaccine hesitancy among the top 10 threats to global health in 2019. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that there have been at least 228 individual measles cases confirmed in 12 states between Jan. 1 and March 7, 2019, with 71 of those traced to Clark County in Washington. Four confirmed cases in Oregon were linked to the Clark County outbreak. 

In another report out of Oregon, the CDC told of an unvaccinated 6-year-old boy who contracted tetanus and required 57 days in the hospital and almost $1 million in care before being released. Upon release, his parents still declined giving him recommended vaccinations, according to the CDC. 

“The reductions we have seen in vaccination coverage threaten to erase many years of progress as nearly-eliminated and preventable diseases return, resulting in illness, disability and death,” Dr. Madara wrote. “In order to protect our communities’ health, it is important that people be aware not just that these diseases still exist and can still debilitate and kill, but that vaccines are a safe, proven way to protect against them.” 

To help spread this message and to counter misinformation campaigns, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine created a website displaying the overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe. This message was repeated again in the Annals of Internal Medicine, which published a Danish study, “Measles, Mumps, Rubella Vaccination and Autism: A Nationwide Cohort Study,” that followed almost 660,000 children and found no connection between the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. 

“The study strongly supports that MMR vaccination does not increase the risk for autism, does not trigger autism in susceptible children, and is not associated with clustering of autism cases after vaccination,” the researchers wrote. “It adds to previous studies through significant additional statistical power and by addressing hypotheses of susceptible subgroups and clustering of cases.” 

In addition to engaging digital and social media executives, the AMA has been active in state legislatures supporting bills seeking to eliminate non-medical exemptions for required childhood vaccines in Maine, Oregon and Washington. The AMA is also opposing an Arizona bill that would discourage adherence to recommended vaccine schedules.

California, Mississippi and West Virginia are the only states that do not allow parents to opt out of vaccinating their children for personal, philosophical or religious reasons.