Misinformation: A Threat to the Health of All

December 20, 2022

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It’s probably not news to you that misinformation abounds on the internet, especially on social media. Nor is the subject of misinformation unfamiliar to those in the pro-vaccine world; the Team Vaccine Blog has covered this subject before. In recent weeks, Twitter eliminated its COVID-19 misinformation policy, the Kaiser Family Foundation released a survey showing that 1/3 of parents believe they shouldn’t have to vaccinate their children for school, and the CDC Director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, proclaimed that vaccine misinformation is one of the biggest threats to public health. It’s safe to say the threat of misinformation to people’s health is at an all-time high.

What is misinformation?

First, let’s define misinformation: Misinformation is incorrect or misleading information. Sometimes it is created or shared innocently; most people don’t knowingly or intentionally share false information. But when it’s done deliberately, that’s what we call “disinformation.” Misinformation is most often shared and spread on social media.

Consumers of online information should be protected from harmful content.

As of November 23, Twitter is no longer enforcing its COVID-19 misinformation policy. Critics of such policies claim violations of free speech and personal choice, but the truth is that policies that protect social media users from harmful content save lives! (Not to mention, these policies are legal because social media users do not have a right to free speech under the First Amendment on private social media platforms.) Misinformation about COVID-19 and other vaccine-preventable diseases fans the flames of vaccine hesitancy, often having the greatest negative impact on the most vulnerable in our communities. When people see a flood of inaccurate information online, it can be incredibly dangerous and even deadly. But when people get accurate information, they can make informed decisions. Social media platforms that limit the spread of false information do so in the name of protecting public health.

A growing number of parents don’t support vaccine requirements for schools amid an outbreak of a disease once eliminated by vaccines.

The Kaiser Family Foundation found that more than 1/3 of adults say healthy children should not be required to get vaccinated for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) to attend public schools. This is alarming! There is currently a growing measles outbreak in Ohio where a majority of the children infected were unvaccinated. Others only had one dose of the vaccine and the remaining were too young to be vaccinated. No measles cases have been reported in fully vaccinated children. Measles, an extremely contagious disease that was considered eliminated in the United States in 2000 thanks to the MMR vaccine, can be deadly and have lasting complications. Measles has been the subject of vaccine misinformation for decades, largely thanks to a widely debunked fraudulent study which claimed the MMR vaccine causes autism. The truth is the MMR vaccine is safe and effective, and well-meaning families who want to protect their children should not be derailed by misinformation, nor should their children suffer or worse, die.

“Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after it.” – Jonathan Swift

But misinformation is not limited to MMR and COVID-19 vaccines. There is misinformation about all vaccine-preventable diseases; it is abundant and it is loud. Interestingly though, findings from an analysis conducted by the Center for Countering Digital Hate from February to March of 2021 show that vaccine misinformation on social media which was shared over 812,00 times originated from only a dozen individuals. Further, many of the individuals on this list are behind organizations that have seen large increases in profits during the COVID-19 pandemic (while more than a million people have died in the U.S. alone). This brings us to Dr. Walensky’s statement in a recent NBC news article:

Doctor’s appointments missed during the first years of Covid contributed to a dip in childhood vaccination rates, but it’s the onslaught of vaccine disinformation that continues to put young kids at risk for preventable death and disease. As I think about the challenges that we have to public health, vaccine misinformation is among the biggest threats.

Vaccines, hailed as the one of the biggest achievements in public health, are rigorously tested and monitored and save lives – 4 to 5 million a year worldwide, to be exact! It’s completely normal to have questions about vaccines, and it’s precisely these questions that bad actors online take advantage of when they deliberately spread inaccurate information and sow doubt. Families should turn to reliable experts like their family’s healthcare provider, local public health agency, and the CDC for answers to questions.

Before liking or sharing on social media, ask yourself: Can I trust this source to provide reliable information?

When it comes to health-related information online, it’s hard to know what’s true and reliable. It’s best to pause to consider whether the source is trustworthy and the content accurate before you like or share. That’s why we’ve developed a fact sheet to help you spot misinformation online. Key tips include ensuring that information is evidence-based and peer-reviewed rather than anecdotal. Ask yourself: Is the source manipulative, emotional, or alarmist? Is someone asking you to purchase something, or will they see a monetary gain in another way? Can the information be verified by outside sources?

We invite you to help us combat misinformation. Each week we tackle a new vaccine myth on social media where you can like, comment, and share. You can also visit our website for answers to commonly asked questions about COVID-19 and get access to reliable resources and information on other vaccine-preventable diseases. Together, we can ensure that truth triumphs and that everyone in our communities has the opportunity to be healthy and thrive!

Immunize Colorado was formed in 1991 in response to alarmingly low vaccination rates across the state. At the time, only about 50% of Colorado’s children were adequately vaccinated. A group of physicians and other concerned individuals came together to strategize how to best protect Coloradans from vaccine-preventable diseases. Much work remains, and Immunize Colorado continues our efforts to protect Colorado families, schools, and communities from vaccine-preventable diseases. You can donate or discover other ways to get involved to support our commitment to healthy Colorado communities today!

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