Anti-vaccination movement threat to public health

As the measles epidemic worsens in Samoa, a vaccinologist and senior lecturer at the University of Auckland Dr. Helen Petousis-Harris says the anti-vaccination movement is a problem that should always be taken seriously. 

Anti-vaccination lobbyists and individuals spreading misinformation and fear online and through social media has been picked by the World Health Organisations as one of the top ten public health challenges for this year.

Earlier this year, anti-vaccination blogger Taylor Winterstein had intended to bring a workshop to Samoa, but cancelled it and others on an international tour due to public backlash.

Dr. Petousis-Harris said vaccine misinformation has always been a problem, and needs to be taken seriously.

“There are a lot of people who aren’t vaccinated because of reasons of not being able to access services, not being aware of the need for the vaccine, but the anti-vaccine movement has always had impacts on coverage, and some of this has led to disease outbreaks right through history,” she said.

“With social media there are new challenges in that space.”

One major proponent of vaccine misinformation was Andrew Wakefield, who published  a fraudulent medical study in a major medical journal claiming that the measles, mumps and rubella (M.M.R.) vaccine caused autism.

That article, first published in 1998 was declared fraudulent in 2011, after widespread refute of the claims it made. Further studies on the claims have been conducted but none have repeated his findings.

But the damage it did to confidence in vaccines was severe. Dr. Petousis-Harris believes the current global outbreak of measles could well be attributed to that fraudulent research and the celebrities he found to back it.

“I think you can truly hold Andrew Wakefield responsible for some of what we are seeing now,” she said.

“There has been research that has demonstrated that those activities have led to outbreaks.”

“Anyone like that, doing what Taylor Winterstein is doing, there surely has to be some responsibility for discouraging people from taking up a really, really important preventative health measure.”

One of the reasons it is so hard to combat anti-vaccination rhetoric, Dr. Petousis-Harris says, is because the anti-vaccination lobby is globally organised, coordinated and taking advantage of social media.

“Public health people are not. They are not well funded, they are not savvy in this space, and not coordinated at all.

“There are some great initiatives going on, we are getting a lot more aware of this as a problem, especially now the World Health Organisation have made it one of the top ten public health challenges for this year. 

“I think we can never be complacent about this sort of think because it does affect people’s decisions.”

As early as 2011, the W.H.O had established a Vaccine Hesitancy working group. 

In an article in the Lancet last year, founding director of the Vaccine Confidence Project Heidi Larson wrote: “vaccine anxieties are not new, but the viral spread of concerns, reinforced by a quagmire of online misinformation, is increasingly connected and global.”

Dr. Larson suggests there are several interventions that can successfully drown out anti-vaccination movements online and help grow vaccine confidence where it has waned. 

This includes using social media to talk directly with the people being influenced away from vaccinations.

“The power of listening and dialogue should never be underestimated,” she added.

“Having someone available to answer questions in clinic waiting rooms or in community settings can help mitigate anxiety and allow hesitant parents to feel that their concerns are being listened to.

“Building vaccine confidence goes beyond changing an individual's mind. The dissenting voices have become highly connected networks, undermining one of the most effective disease prevention tools. 

“We need globally and locally connected positive voices and interventions that are vigilant, listening, and have the resources and capacity to respond.”

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