Healthcare sector must fight back against misinformation
I am old enough to remember what life was like before the internet. Before a virtually infinite amount of information was available at our fingertips, finding material was often an arduous task. Throughout high school, college and even part of graduate school, conducting research meant me driving to the closest public or college library and physically looking through stacks of books or operating microfiche readers to find old newspaper or journal articles. The machines were often clumsy and the process was less than a breeze. Today, all that is a distant memory. And, while it has become infinitely easier to access information about absolutely any subject one can think of in any language, the old rules about consulting sources with credible academic and professional credentials still apply.
Reliable sources are easy to find, but so are suspect ones. Worse still, baseless rumors and pseudoscience have flourished in the information age and now travel and spread much more easily thanks to the internet and social media. The implications, especially as far as issues of public health are concerned, are indeed serious. We see that in dramatic fashion in the movement that casts doubt on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, which has now spread globally.
The so called anti-vaxxers have particularly focused on the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella. Although the medical community has repeatedly demonstrated the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, opponents — relying mostly on a long-discredited study from 1998 — have managed to create a controversy when, in reality, one does not exist. Despite virtually no scientific evidence, the theory that the MMR vaccine causes autism in children has found passionate advocates in many countries; and it seems to be spreading. Thanks to the efforts of some celebrity proponents, this anti-vaccination movement even managed to get a member of Congress to hold hearings about vaccines: An issue that the medical community has long since reached a consensus about. In fact, much like antibiotics, vaccines are credited for the vast improvements in public health around the world in the 20th century.
Some experts in the medical field suggest that the current outbreak of measles in Europe is at least partly explained by a lower rate of children being inoculated than in previous years. Measles had long ago been largely eradicated in advanced countries in North America and Europe, which is why its recent return and spread has particularly alarmed healthcare officials. While easily preventable with the vaccine, it can be deadly in some cases. The World Health Organization has reported that some 41,000 people in Europe were infected in the first six months of 2018, and 37 died. Globally, measles still kills around 100,000 children each year.
Baseless rumors and pseudoscience have flourished in the information age, meaning the healthcare community must proactively advocate for the benefits of vaccines
The aforementioned discredited 1998 study and a higher incidence of autism in certain countries seem to have given birth to this faux controversy. Here one has to be mindful that some prominent anti-vaxxers are themselves parents of children with autism; they are trying to better understand the underlying causes of the disease and no one can fault them for that. However, the ongoing debate about the causes of autism should not cast doubt on a long-settled issue. More importantly, it should not create a public health risk where one had not previously existed.
In Saudi Arabia, as in the US and elsewhere, the professional healthcare community has long realized that raising public awareness and preventative care are vital to improved public health. However, it is not enough to debunk rumors and theories questioning the safety of vaccines — the community must proactively advocate for the benefits of vaccines.
A few months ago, the Saudi Ministry of Health used its social media accounts, especially Twitter and Facebook, to launch a simple campaign that unequivocally dismissed any rumors still circulating about the safety or effectiveness of vaccines. Similar measures also dealt with other communicable diseases.
The battle for improved public health will be won by making sure the public has access to the correct information. Public awareness campaigns are crucial, but the individual, especially parents, also have an obligation to make sure that they are properly informed about healthcare issues. We no longer have to use microfiche to research any issue that concerns us, including those related to health, but being properly informed entails more than simply checking with “Dr. Google.” Professional healthcare providers must be empowered to lead the way.
- Fahad Nazer is a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington and an International Fellow at the National Council on US Arab Relations. He does not represent or speak on behalf of either organization. Twitter: @fanazer