The anti-vaccine movement in the age of social media

13/02/2019 12:02 pm

The anti-vaccine movement is a hot topic at the moment. Given that a recent report by the Royal Society for Public Health, claims half of all parents with a child under the age of five have been exposed to information relating to the anti-vaccine movement. With the ability for inaccurate information to spread so easily due to social media platforms which allow a large demographic to access this information, the anti-vaccine movement has become a real healthcare issue.

Vaccine hesitancy: past and present

Evidence of this problem lies in the 41,000 cases of measles last year. Originally created in 1988, the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine was originally welcomed with the exact sentiments you would expect from the creation of a vaccine that prevents such diseases. It was only in 1990 that a paper was published by the now discredited gastroenterologist, Andrew Wakefield. His paper argued the link between the MMR vaccine and autism. With the media pushing this story heavily, publishing a total of 1,257 stories on this topic in 2002 alone. It caused a steep decrease in MMR vaccinations administered, the threat of these diseases has become a justified concern to the public’s health, with a total of 37 measles-related deaths last year.

MMR vaccines and other such programmes of herd vaccination, (referring to a large amount of the population being vaccinated to stop the spread of infection) need to be understood as remarkable in their own right. Considering that the first (and only) disease to be classified as eradicated – smallpox, was only possible due to vaccinating a large amount of the population. Vaccine hesitancy needs to be addressed faster than the spread of the diseases it is enabling. When looking at the arguments for the anti-vaccine movement, the main reason cited is the fear of side effects. While this is a valid worry, and largely understandable, the side effects of most vaccines are comparably less severe than the disease they are immunising against.

Social media and the anti-vaccine movement

Even though the facts about vaccination are accessible, why has vaccine hesitancy gained popularity? Despite it being tricky for lay people to be sure they are reading a credible resource; a further issue could be the social media platforms that are a daily part of our lives. Facebook has various forums and discussion groups that are against vaccinations. What is even more disconcerting are the stipulations around Facebook advertising. Currently, anti-vaccine groups can use paid Facebook advertising to push misinformation. This is understandably tricky territory between free speech and censorship. Even so, fearful statements such as ‘vaccines kill babies’ and sensationalised narratives that are not founded on accuracy and scientific evidence can only lead to detrimental effects surrounding the credibility of vaccines.

COUCH Health

Image courtesy of The Guardian (January 2019)

While these stories can be easily proven false, they play into the phenomenon of illusory truth. Meaning, when someone is exposed to a piece of information or statement repeatedly, they begin to equate that repetition with truth. The term, first coined in the 70s, can be used to explain the rise of fake news, and movements such as ‘anti-vaxxers’. It is when these social media platforms allow the repetition of such content, that leads to many adopting the beliefs of the anti-vaccine movement. This linking of people who have adopted such beliefs has only fuelled the narrative even more, leading to a rise in cases of easily preventable diseases.

Concluding thoughts

Many considerations should be in mind when engaging with this healthcare issue. There are many viewpoints that travel from mouth to ear, and forum to forum. Therefore, it is important that people carry out due diligence when looking into vaccinations. There is nothing wrong with researching a vaccine that is offered to you, so long as the sources are reputable and the information they provide is credible – which means backed up by evidence. Considering that the history of vaccinations spans over 200 years, the anti-vaccine movement carries a much shorter, sporadic, and discredited history.

With this in mind, it is crucial we consider the millions of lives saved every year from vaccines, and how informed decision-making can – and will – save even more.

About the author

With a background in the cultural sector, Laura uses her knowledge and skills to develop engaging content. She enjoys looking at ways to make seemingly dense content more creative and inclusive. Her strengths lie in copy editing, concept creation, brand design, copy development alongside the effective organisation of key projects. In her spare time, Laura enjoys visiting art museums, concerts and festivals. She also enjoys taking part in spoken word nights in and around Manchester. If she had to decide the thing she loves most in the world, it’s definitely Wetherspoons.

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