As doctors and public health officials coast-to-coast battle infectious outbreaks — of measles, mumps, meningitis, whooping cough, influenza, as well as typhus, hepatitis, and TB — the nation is also struggling with the right response for yet another contagion: the viral spread of medical misinformation on social media.
Medical nonsense isn’t new, and savvy patient-consumers long have needed to do a little work to protect themselves from what can be its real and significant harms. But a season of rapidly spreading and 100% preventable infectious diseases has forced modern medicine to confront generational dilemmas with health disinformation that is “shared” widely online and especially via social media.
For the rising generation that now parents youngsters who need and should be vaccinated, social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram, as well as information searches via Google have become as ordinary and accepted as once were daily newspapers and the 6 o’clock TV news. But cyber world’s ubiquity also has allowed counter factual, unfounded, nonscientific, and extreme notions to proliferate, as users of all kinds “create content” online. This has fueled the dangerous normalizing and further rise of the anti-vaccination or anti-vaxxer movement.
As Dr. Dyan Hes has noted in a post on the doctors’ website KevinMD, social media like Facebook already were becoming problematic for practitioners, especially pediatricians, who on the site “are often rated and compared [by parents with little patients] like hotel mattresses.” When doctors and their offices try to provide helpful and general information to this audience, including a seemingly innocuous notice that it is time for youngsters to get shots and the vaccines are available, things can get ugly.
Doctors have found themselves under siege by anti-vaxxers targeting them with hate and harassment campaigns. This, in turn, combined with spikes in preventable infections like measles, has caused a backlash against anti-vaxxers. The World Health Organization has declared hesitancy and resistance to vaccination one of its Top 10 threats to global health in 2019. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have ripped social media companies and demanded they act, within appropriate free speech bounds, to quash false information spreading about vaccines. Instagram and YouTube both have taken such steps, and Facebook, as always, is dragging its feet but promises to act.
Dr. Hes reported a rare bright spot of sorts in her social media dealings. She noted that she has taken the professional and philosophical stand that youngsters in her practice must be vaccinated, and according to evidence-based schedules, or she will send them to others for care. It has made business for her sometimes tough, she noted.
But, after seeing her stance become the subject of Facebook postings, she was wary. Slowly, though, the comments’ tide turned, she reported:
As the night went on, more and more pro-vaccine posts were in the feed! Mothers who expressed fear of their infants catching measles in a waiting room, mothers of children with immunodeficiencies, and mothers with immune problems themselves were voicing their fears. This brought tears to my eyes.
Soon, she found, those pro-vaccine and her approach far outweighed the antis, leading her to write: “It is going to take time and many more epidemics to undo all the anti-vax nonsense out there, but we physicians can do it if we stand firm together in support of science and health.”
Yes, that’s true, doctor. In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, including unacceptable injuries to babies and children, and hard experience has shown me that an important way to avoid problems with the medical system is for all of us to do what we can to stay out of it. An important way for youngsters to be healthier for a lifetime is by getting all the appropriate vaccinations they need.
Vaccinations, like all medical treatments, carry risks, and these cannot be ignored. But they also should not be exaggerated, wildly, and the benefits of inoculations far, far outweigh their risks, research has shown.
Baby boomer grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, and loved ones need to remind rising generations just how much childhood diseases—preventable infections—can savage lives. In other parts of the world, they still are debilitating, damaging, and deadly. No one would wish on any youngster the discomfort, pain, suffering, and worse harms of needless infections. Just consider the weeks of care by dozens of medical professionals and the $1 million in bills racked up by an Oregon youngster who was not inoculated and suffered a rare tetanus infection. It’s tragic that dozens of youngers didn’t get shots and died in last year’s U.S. season of flu.
Social media creates nightmares for highly trained medical and scientific experts who may want to disseminate their knowledge, experience, and findings to wider audiences but don’t want to be trolled or see online furies descend on them with zero cause or reason. Some of this activity may be malevolent with intent, designed by pernicious parties, including foreign governments, to sow discord in U.S. society.
But experts can’t shy away from communicating important information, especially as it affects our public and collective health. Lawmakers must use great care to craft measures that bar or punish malicious, hateful, and damaging online conduct and actions while at the same time preserving precious free speech and expression. State legislators also must resist the strident few and take up some of the most effective ways to protect the public health by requiring children to be vaccinated and offering few exemptions for this practice. Medical groups and licensing agencies also must give a hard look at doctors who become exemption mills, fueling anti-vax nonsense and including the woo of risky delays in inoculation schedules.
And if Big Tobacco and Big Pharma are nefarious and crafty enough to recognize and exploit the sway they hold on the young, doctors, hospitals, and public health officials also need to figure ways to enlist youthful social media “influencers” to promote evidence-based, proven healthful practices like vaccinations.
Hes noted in her article that she was disturbed by an anti-vax mom who wanted to pit the pediatrician’s extensive training, experience, and expertise in medicine against an online poll she had put up, asking moms in her Facebook following if they thought “we should vaccinate today.”
Really? Hes thought that was a nonstarter. So do I. The “wisdom of crowds” is something we hear about, but this is not an issue where polling among lay people can ever produce a scientifically accurate and safe consensus.