Spreading anti-vaccine rumors a threat to public health

Spreading anti-vaccine rumors a threat to public health

Perhaps one of mankind’s greatest inventions is that of vaccines. Vaccinations have made tremendous contributions to global health. They have led to the eradication of infectious diseases such as smallpox and rinderpest, and are on the way to eradicating polio — a disease that affects children and leads to irreversible paralysis. Vaccines have changed human history.

However, despite having no scientific standing or empirical evidence, the anti-vaccine movement is on the rise. Propelled by anti-establishment populists, social media celebrities and “mommy bloggers,” the campaign draws on discredited studies and targets medical authorities and big pharmaceuticals. The movement has managed to raise the health risk around the world and played a role in the number of measles cases surging to a 20-year high in Europe. According to a report produced by The Guardian, the number of measles cases on the continent more than doubled in 2018, reaching 60,000, and resulting in 72 deaths.

In the US, the Center for Disease Control and prevention (CDC) reported 349 cases of measles in 26 states last year — the second-highest number of annual cases since measles was declared eliminated in the US in 2000.

In the Muslim world, specifically in Malaysia, the number of parents who refused to vaccinate their children soared from 470 in 2013 to a high of 1,903 in 2016. Closer to home, 80 percent of parents in Saudi Arabia refused to give approval for the influenza vaccine.

Last September, the Ministry of Health and Prevention in the UAE announced that the HPV or cervical cancer vaccine would be mandatory for all female students starting from the eighth grade. What followed was an exaggerated public outcry over the negative effects of the vaccine, while others questioned its relevance in a Muslim and pious society. Soon after the backlash, the ministry clarified that the vaccine would be part of the National Immunization Program and thus would require parents’ prior approval.

This incident in the UAE is particularly worrisome because cervical cancer is the second most common cancer amongst women in Abu Dhabi. But, more importantly, it is preventable. Taking the vaccine reduces one’s chance of getting the HPV virus by 70 percent and national programs have proven successful. Australia, for instance, it is on the cusp of eradicating cervical cancer thanks to its compulsory vaccine program. In a little more than 10 years since the introduction of the program, Australia has brought the percentage of people affected by the virus down to 1 percent, saving thousands of lives and millions of dollars in health costs.

Despite having no scientific evidence, there are many so-called theories endorsed by skeptics, which fuel the anti-vaccine movement. Parents are beginning to question the number of vaccines they have to give their children, the age, and the credibility of the sources of information.

Campaigns against vaccines have managed to influence families and, as a result, brought down immunization rates for many preventable diseases, including measles, cervical cancer and the flu.

Asma I. Abdulmalik

Perhaps the most widespread theory against vaccines is that they cause autism. This was debunked years ago in a meta-analysis of 10 studies involving more than 1.2 million children conducted by researchers from the University of Sydney. In fact, investigations revealed that the researcher who made the link between vaccines and autism distorted the data and acted unethically, consequently losing his license.

Other myths claim that vaccines contain dangerous toxins, such as mercury, when in fact there is no evidence that proves the low level of mercury or aluminum found in vaccines is harmful.

Furthermore, anti-vaccine advocates claim that children receive too many vaccinations in their first few years of life, and thus can skip a few or spread them out. In fact, a baby’s body has the ability to respond to 10,000 vaccines at one time, and spreading shots out puts the children and others at risk of diseases. With increased global travel, especially in areas considered transport hubs, such as Dubai, vaccines are still necessary.

Campaigns against vaccines have managed to influence families and, as a result, brought down immunization rates for many preventable diseases, including measles, cervical cancer and the flu. While it is relatively easy to regulate material and announcements from official health and social establishments, it is far more complex to control the misinformation disseminated through social media.

Accounts on social media, whether run by professionals or bloggers, must be held accountable should they spread false information that could have public health ramifications. For example, the case in the UAE where an Emirati doctor spread false information regarding the number of cervical cancer cases and attributed the vaccination campaign to foreign conspiracies whose aim was to cripple the Arab youth with genetic diseases.

While many governments have laws governing the dissemination of information that could cause harm to national security, others including the UAE have expanded the radius and passed decrees to combat the spread of rumors that “damage social and public order.” This includes sharing information on social media. What may seem as a harmless personal experience or opinion can have dire repercussions now that the number of social media users has exponentially increased.

Lastly, it is important to design effective campaigns targeting various groups in society and contextualizing vaccinations to the Muslim and Arab traditions and beliefs in order to spread the right message and raise awareness on the importance of vaccines.

  • Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @Asmaimalik
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