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Anti-vax propaganda could fuel a public health crisis and big tech must be held to account

5 min read

We can’t allow fake news and pernicious propaganda to undermine a medical advance that has helped save so many lives. This is about the health and wellbeing of our children. It would be shameful tragedy if we failed them by not acting, says Jon Ashworth MP.

Last month, Rockland County, 30 miles north of New York city, in an unprecedented move in the States, issued an emergency directive that barred unvaccinated children from public places including schools, shopping centres, restaurants and places of worship. Parents ignoring the directive and insisting on sending their children to school have been warned they face fines of $500 or 6 months in jail.

An outbreak of 153 cases of measles since October prompted Rockland county to take such action. While Rocklands’ response may be drastic, they aren’t the only community in the USA grappling with outbreaks at a time when the anti-vaccination movement is growing in strength and prominence online. Indeed, the US is set to see the most measles cases this year since 2000 when theoretically the disease was considered officially eliminated.

Europe is literally not immune either. Measles cases are at a 20-year high and 72 children and vulnerable adults lost their life to it last year. In 2019 so far, Romania has seen 261 new cases of Measles. In Italy, which saw 165 new cases in January, the authorities have started telling children not to turn up to school unless they can prove they have been properly vaccinated. Just across the channel in France, 124 cases were confirmed during the same period.

In the UK we have a proud history of confronting the disease. Last year marked 50 years since the introduction of the first measles containing vaccine into the UK childhood immunisation programme. It’s undoubtedly been a huge public health success - thanks to this vaccine, it is estimated that 20 million measles cases and 4,500 deaths have been averted since 1968 in the UK. It will have helped millions of people avoid visiting their GP and thousands avoid hospital admissions, as well as freeing up NHS resources.

But there are warning signs we must heed.

After years of cuts to public health budgets, falling numbers of Health Visitors supporting parents and increased pressures on general practice with less GPs and district nurses, our childhood vaccination rates are the lowest in over a decade, with the number of two-year olds getting the MMR vaccine falling for the fourth year in a row. Whooping cough is up on the up again in England and just a few weeks ago, a measles warning was issued in Greater Manchester.

I would hate to see anything as drastic as the measures taken in Rockland County or Italy happen here so decisive action from government must become an urgent priority.

That means investing more in primary care and abandoning the swingeing cuts to public health budgets the Health Secretary had just endorsed.

Bit it means taking firmer action with the big tech social media companies too.

The dangerous anti vaccination movement can too easily spread its propaganda online with no counter argument or concerns raised. For example The Royal Society of Public Health found that half of all parents with small children have been exposed to misinformation about vaccines on social media.

In just a few hours I was easily able to find shocking anti vaccination content on social media in Facebook groups containing posts from terrified parents asking for advice on how to make sure their new born babies aren’t taken away from them shortly after birth to be vaccinated. Or other posts completely misinforming the public about the science behind vaccinations.

One post I saw, for example, cited the use of formaldehyde in vaccinations, using this as a scare tactic, despite the fact that we know that formaldehyde is found naturally in many living things and you’ll find around 50 times more formaldehyde in a pear, than what is in any vaccine.

A large proportion of anti-vaccine messages found on these sites appear to originate in the US, but of course the spread of information nowadays is global and UK based groups on Facebook do exist, with some pages I’ve found having thousands of members.

No wonder the government's chief medical advisor, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has said MMR vaccine uptake was "not good enough" and has urged parents to ignore "social media fake news".

The spread of this ‘anti vax disinformation’ on social media is pernicious and potentially fuels a public health crisis in the UK

Today’s online harms white paper cites the spread of inaccurate anti vaccination messaging on social media as a risk to public health and a threat to our way of life. I agree.  But while proposals for a Code of Conduct are welcome, they need to go further than just asking that fact checking services, promotion of authoritative news sources or making content less visible. We need the regulator to be sanctioning platforms that allow anti-vax propaganda to spread unchecked. I’m also calling on the NHS to promote messages outlining the importance of vaccinations on social media and the high risks of ignoring such advice.

Vaccinations have been one of the most important public health interventions of the last 70 years since the creation of the NHS. We can’t allow fake news and pernicious propaganda to undermine a medical advance that has helped save so many lives. This is about the health and wellbeing of our children. It would be shameful tragedy if we failed them by not acting.


Jon Ashworth is Labour and Co-operative MP for Leicester South.

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