We must take action against the growing anti-vaccine movement
A flood of dangerous false information on social media, and the rise of populist far-right politics, is fuelling a global health threat, warns Lord Faulkner
Last year there were 82,500 cases of measles in Europe – three times the number reported in 2017, and the highest number for 10 years.
Measles is a highly infectious disease which can cause serious health complications, including damage to the lungs and brain and in some cases death.
In the US there have been significant numbers of cases in Washington, California, Texas and Illinois, and a county in New York state has declared a state of emergency after 153 cases were confirmed. In 2000 health officials believed that measles had been eradicated from the USA.
Public health practitioners rightly believe that vaccination is essential to tackling the scourge of infectious diseases. Back in 1853 Parliament passed the Vaccination Act which made it compulsory for all children born after 1 August 1853 to be vaccinated against smallpox during their first three months of life. Parents who failed to get their children vaccinated were fined.
We are now seeing an upsurge in the number of cases of measles because of “vaccine hesitancy”: more parents are refusing to have their children vaccinated. According to a paper by Jonathan Kennedy from Queen Mary University of London published in the European Journal of Public Health there is an underlying link between the rise of right-wing anti-establishment politics and vaccine hesitancy. “The higher the level of populist votes in a country, the greater the proportion of the population that believe that vaccines are not effective.”
Dr Kennedy writes that modern vaccine hesitancy is usually traced to Andrew Wakefield's now discredited 1998 Lancet article, which claimed a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism.
Driving this populist anti-science and anti-public health sentiment – which has attracted both President Trump (who invited Wakefield to his inauguration ball), Italy’s deputy premier Matteo Salvini and other right-wing leaders in Europe – is a flood of dangerous false information about vaccines on social media.
A study carried out by Mark Dredze from Johns Hopkins University in the US found that “social media bots and Russian trolls have been spreading disinformation about vaccines on Twitter to create social discord and distribute malware”.
Many posted both pro- and anti-vaccination messages to create “false equivalency”, the study found. It examined thousands of tweets sent between 2014 and 2017, and found that vaccination was being used by trolls and sophisticated bots as a “wedge issue”. “By playing both sides, they erode public trust in vaccination, exposing us all to the risk of infectious diseases,” Dredze said.
The World Health Organization has declared the anti-vaccine movement to be one of the top global health threats for 2019.
One solution is to make some vaccinations compulsory – as Britain did with smallpox in 1853. Only a third of the counties in Europe have mandatory vaccination; Britain is amongst the two-thirds that do not. I shall be asking the health minister in the Lords whether we should now join them.
I shall also be asking what progress the government is making in forcing social media companies to remove content promoting false information about vaccines.
Protecting our children from dangerous and potentially fatal diseases through vaccination is as important a contribution to public health as earlier measures such as clean water, clean air, and reducing smoking.
Lord Faulkner is a Labour peer. His oral question is on Monday 1st April.