Anti-vaxxers, also known as people who are opposed to vaccination, typically a parent who refuses to vaccinate their child, must be stopped. The anti-vaccination movement, which continues to grow, is a main source of worry for scientists who are sure vaccines work, but it should also be one for the rest of us. Measles (among other diseases) is on the rise once again, and reviews found that there is a correlation between the two problems. Here’s what is wrong with anti-vaxxers and what needs to be done.
The anti-vaccination movement comes from the idea that there’s a connection between vaccination and autism, as well as other brain disorders. This idea rests upon no scientific evidence, but as you’ve probably realised by now, the same can be said about many other beliefs in our increasingly disbelieving world.
Measles is a disease more contagious than Tuberculosis or Ebola, yet it is easily preventable with a vaccine that barely costs anything. When measles was declared to be eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, everyone thought—rightly so—that it was thanks to vaccines. And yet here we are, in 2019, with parents knowingly withholding their children from something that could save them from potential brain damage and death. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2018 measles cases in the U.S. went up six-fold while they tripled across Europe.
The situation is so bad that even Trump, who only a year ago ‘flirted’ with notorious anti-vaxxers and repeatedly linked vaccinations to autism, declared that people “have to get their shots”. In other words, if even Trump takes these outbreaks seriously, this is not something to disregard. This entirely preventable emergency that started in March this year should be a lesson to everyone about how unfortunate a world without vaccines would be.
A few months after the outbreak, anti-vaxxers are still going strong, lowering herd immunity quickly. In the U.K., Prince Charles’ mission to save homeopathy is reenforcing the public’s distrust in medical science. How? By promoting homeopathy as a miracle remedy, one that hasn’t been provided by the NHS since 2017 and has been described by its chief executive Simon Stevens as “at best a placebo and a misuse of scarce NHS funds”.
The anti-vaccination movement comes exactly from the growing public distrust of vaccines, but also in science, in the government, and in the pharmaceutical industry more broadly. So what can we do, really, apart from making vaccines mandatory for everyone? Tackling fake news and misinformation, especially fake medical news on social media, would be a first step.
In March 2016, even Robert De Niro dabbled in this affair by promoting the anti-vaccination documentary Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe and pushing for the film to be featured in the Tribeca Film Festival. A few days after, De Niro decided not to include the film, most likely realising the larger-scale impact that this could have on the country’s already declining health.
Lastly, it shouldn’t be forgotten that more people are involved in the whole vaccination drama and therefore should be held accountable. Health professionals have to take accountability or be made to do so in this matter as well. We need to ensure that doctors giving shots are equipped with concrete information and available to talk to those who have concerns, so that parents can feel like they’re making well-informed decisions.
Conspiracy theories are fine and should be left alone to thrive on Reddit as long as they’re not hurting people in the process. People that don’t make the effort to promote vaccination are unknowingly allowing anti-vaxxers to do their damage. Anti-vaxxers should be called out—by the government, by doctors, by you, me—so that putting kids’ vaccination ‘on hold’ becomes shocking and taboo again. It’s a matter of life and death.
You’ve heard of social media influencers, but have you ever heard of a social media influencer among the gastroenterology community? Probably not, and yet it is certainly a thing. Dr Austin Chiang is a gastroenterologist who studied at Harvard, but he also is the first Chief Medical Social Media Officer at the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, in Philadelphia. In other words, part of his job is to get doctors and other health professionals on social media to drown out health misinformation by posting large quantities of posts that are fact checked and, well, not fake. The idea of doctors having a presence on social media sounds unconventional at first, so it makes sense that people might wonder why exactly Dr Chiang’s job was created.
Just like fake news, fake health news come mainly from social media accounts sharing information that is not based on any medical research. And just like much of the speculative and factually inaccurate content shared on social networks, many people ultimately believe it. This is where Dr Chiang’s accounts come as a remedy. His main platform is Instagram but you can also find him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. On Instagram, Dr Chiang has more than 22,000 followers—making him the most followed medical influencer outside the world of plastic surgery and nutritional well-being—and his content represents his two favourite things: medicine and social media.
Every few days Dr Chiang posts a picture of himself with captions about the latest research or advice to patients trying to navigate between real information and rumours. And where do those rumours come from? According to Dr Chiang, from public figures like the 1.9 million Instagram followers and #1 NY Times Bestselling Author Anthony William, also known as the Medical Medium, famous for his book Celery Juice: The Most Powerful Medicine Of Our Time Healing Millions Worldwide.
When looking at William’s online presence, especially his Instagram account, many questions come to mind, mainly how someone with no medical background has harnessed so much credibility by the public. William’s entire Instagram feed looks like a bad infomercial for a blender or an eczema miracle cream and the consistent use of #healing makes for a cocktail of unease and suspicion. Call me crazy, but I’d like to think that if you proclaim yourself as a ‘medical medium’ without any diploma to show for yourself, you are most likely a crook that sees himself as a spiritual saviour.
Anti-vaccination content is another example of fake health news spreading through social media, with communities and groups preaching to anyone willing to believe that vaccination causes autism—a theory that has never been medically proven. Some people go as far as giving a ‘cure’ for autism in the form of an industrial-strength bleach.
Bearing witness to this kind of content online, Dr Chiang’s CEO Steve Klasko came up with the idea of creating a well-needed medical presence on social media with the help of Dr Chiang’s Instagram and hashtags like #verifyhealthcare and #dontgoviral. The solution to this frightening misinformation is providing young people with the right information, and allowing them to access it easily, which means publishing it on social media, where it is known that under 35s spend a large chunk of their time and where they get their news and information.
At the moment, Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s goal is to have approximately 3,000 doctors participating on social media, which sounds like a good start. Help from the government (or social media companies like Instagram, Facebook and Twitter) in regulating false information could also soon be a necessity. Until then, don’t believe everything you read on the internet and please stay away from Medical Medium.