We believe that vaccines are extremely important in protecting everyone from illnesses. Throughout history, vaccines stopped the spread of deadly diseases and increase the life expectancy of children all over the world. However, with the recent anti-vaccination trend, parents do not want to vaccinate their children, leading to the comeback of preventable diseases. Just look at measles. As a result, there are outbreaks of it in the US, the Philippines, Brazil and more; herd immunity that generations of people worked so hard to build is collapsing. Infants and those with compromised immunity are at extreme risk catching these potentially fatal diseases. We need to ask ourselves why is this happening at such a large, widespread scale now? Even with the facts presented, why are people still like that?
Now, anti-vaccination trends have been happening throughout history, just that those trends were usually contained in one location or community. Thus, it did not spread as much as our recent trends. The reason for such a widespread trend would be due to social and mass media perpetuating falsehoods.
Misinformation: Resurgence of Preventable Diseases
Given our technological advancement, all sorts of information is readily available, including those that are fake and incorrect. It is a double edged sword; on one hand, you have all the knowledge in the world at a press of a button. On the other hand, there is no control over what is posted. Ordinary people can claim that they are experts and post improper advice. Information, history and facts may be presented without context, which can be manipulated to fit malicious agendas. With so much information claiming that they are true, it is indeed difficult to discern what is right and wrong.
So, why people readily believe all these information presented? It could be that they are so steadfast about their beliefs that they are closed off to alternative opinions and facts. It could be due to their cognitive bias to believe in things that are similar to their morals and values. Thus, if there is new information that disprove their values, they will be less inclined to believe in them. With such strong beliefs and cognitive bias, all the facts in the world will not convince them that what they learned was wrong (it is possible but it will take very long).
“Vaccines cause Autism!”
Let’s take a look at a notorious study which formed the basis of a lot of today’s anti-vaccination trends: the ‘scientific’ article by Andrew Wakefield about vaccines causing autism in the 1990s.
Wakefield claimed that children vaccinated with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine were more likely to get bowel disease and autism. Due to this publication, vaccines were administered in single doses instead of the triple vaccine. This change led to an outcry amongst the public who were afraid of the effects of the vaccine. However, from 2004 to 2010, it was proven that there was no link between vaccines, autism and bowel disease, and that publication was to be used against pharmaceutical companies manufacturing vaccines. The publication was deemed as flawed with poorly conducted research and falsified data.There was no difference of incidence of autism between children who were vaccinated and those were not. The damage has been done where even till today, a lot of people believe that the MMR vaccine can overload a child’s immune system and cause autism.
You might also be wondering, why so many autism cases now as compared to the past? This is because of better diagnosis and reporting. In the past, there was no proper way to diagnose the Autism Spectrum Disorder, meaning the children were being underdiagnosed and thus reporting fewer numbers in official census. With better methods and awareness, more people are stepping out to get themselves or their children checked for autism. Therefore, the numbers reported are higher as compared to the past. The exact cause is still unknown but prevalence amongst all children has not changed at all.
Usually, when you see a scientific publication, you would think that the information there is going to be true because science is all about facts. Especially, if it was peer reviewed which means that scientific community agrees with these findings. This would show why people are more inclined to believe in misinformation in scientific articles. Even now, many people are still quoting Wakefield in their anti-vaccination claims. And a disastrous effect is that, due to the retracting of the article, people are starting to doubt the reliability of science. They start to question whether the facts presented by scientists is true which could explain why they do not believe scientific facts.
“I saw it on the Internet. It must be True!”
The Internet perpetuates the spread of misinformation of vaccines. Some sites have the intention of educating people of alternative perspectives to mainstream news and information. While some of the intentions may be good (given the context that certain companies and brands hide important information), the information they present may be completely wrong and worsen the spread of misinformation. They take events out of context and use it to fit their own agenda.
For instance, let’s look at A Voice for Change, a site that aims to show people the ingredients that goes into consumables so that they can make informed choices. According to A Voice for Change, they said that vaccines contains neurotoxins like aluminium and mercury that far exceeds safe levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA. However, the case is that aluminium is also present in higher amounts in breast milk and mercury is no longer added in today’s vaccines. They do not understand the purpose of such ingredient as aluminium is used to strengthen the immune system. Furthermore, they did not mention any of the dangers when you do not vaccinate your child. The group wants other people to spread and advocate their message which means that the spread of these wrong information will get worse.
Social Media similar to the Plague
The more you hear about something, the more likely you believe that is true. Given our attention span, possible laziness, and lack of action, we are less likely to ensure that the news is indeed true. This is the phenomenon that is happening on social media, especially when it is proclaimed by a celebrity, big name or an influencer who are not certified experts. Believing them, people share their message throughout social media where more people get influenced and continue to spread the message. Within a few days or even hours, the anti-vaxx message has spread globally. You could say that the message is spreading like a disease in an unvaccinated community.
Donald Trump has become a propagator of the belief that overloading the child with multiple vaccines will lead to autism. He believes that vaccines should be spread out during the child’s life, possibly citing from Andrew Wakefield. His words (and tweets) bears a lot of weight as President of the USA where people started to think that whatever he was saying was true and they should follow it. This is another good example on how prominent figures without scientific backing can make false claims and cause a cult following of anti-vaxxers. Now, his stance has changed due to the outbreak of measles in the US where he urges everyone to get vaccinated. We have yet to see the impact of change of stance now.
Donald Trump is also a firm believer about the MMR vaccine causing autism(screenshots by me from Twitter).
You may also notice that many anti-vax social media groups constantly make unscientific claims. You can see the recurring theme about vaccines causing autism even though the infamous Wakefield article is retracted. Sometimes you can see the ingredients being examined by themselves instead of its purpose in the vaccine. The information presented in this way do not offer the full story and critique, and these groups will find any reason to bash the use of vaccines to propagate their agenda. In this process, they continue to misinform their supporters further and spread fear among the masses.
People can join groups of similar beliefs and propagate their message further. (screenshot by me from Facebook, personal details blanked out)
Scaremongering tactics are also used to sway people. Notice the large number of people sharing this post. (screenshot by me from Facebook, username cropped out for privacy)
One of the tactics: taking vaccine ingredients out of context. Aluminum in vaccines is used for strengthening the immune system. (screenshot by me from Facebook)
As mentioned above, the issue with social media is that any message can be shared and broadcasted to a wider audience quickly and easily. People can also create sponsored posts that can appear on their target audience’s newsfeed. Going back to the issue of cognitive bias, when an anti-vaxxer shares or post something about their beliefs, people with similar ideals will share those same sentiments. And if they are worded in an emotional way, it can sway those who are unsure about vaccinations. Social media anti-vax groups, strengthen the belief about vaccinations even more strongly as their messages are posted frequently with little to none alternative views. With their beliefs bolstered, these people are less likely to be open to other facts and information.
Thus, the anti-vaccination trend is a dangerous and a stubborn one that would not stop spreading. Though it may be hard to stop the spread of misinformation, countries are taking precautions to ensure that the spread of diseases is controlled and unvaccinated people isolated. Below are some links you can check out to be informed about the issues of vaccinations. You can be the one to show people what is acceptable and what is not.
If you like to have more information about vaccines and preventable diseases, you can visit History of Vaccines
If you would like to know about the ingredients that go into a vaccine, you can check out the Vaccine Knowledge Project by the University of Oxford
Smallpox is a great example of how vaccines eradicated a disease from the world. You can read it here:
Here is how you can fight anti-vax misinformation: How to Quickly can you Debunk Anti-Vaccine Propaganda