March 5 (UPI) -- Doubts about vaccines, fueled by inaccurate information, could be fracturing the benefits of herd immunity brought on by vaccine acceptance, experts say.
Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube have been used to spread misinformation about the perceived dangers of getting immunized and have started taking action to stem it.
"We have seen this be a big issue with vaccine-related information," Jeanine Guidry, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, told UPI.
A plethora of studies has demonstrated the efficacy of vaccines -- including one published Monday showing "no difference in the risk of autism in vaccinated and unvaccinated children" among more than 650,000 Danish children. But parental concern persists.
"We need more research focusing on health information on social media, but particularly on more understudied platforms such as Pinterest, Instagram and Snapchat; public and other health organizations need to make sure and have a presence on social media platforms and post correct, evidence-based information, and if possible respond to people who ask questions," Guidry said.
More than 2 percent of people in the United States sought nonmedical exemptions from vaccinations in 2017-18, up from 1.1 percent in 2009-10. The rise has coincided with a spread of misinformation about vaccines that, to a certain extent, is rooted in previously published -- and widely debunked -- studies.
A 1974 study conducted in the United Kingdom is credited with starting the anti-vaccine movement. It claimed that a vaccine that protects against whooping cough actually brought on neurological disorders.
From the time of its publication to 1980, the study led a charge that caused vaccinations to fall from 81 percent to 31 percent. The research was later discredited due to the low sample size of participants and questionable testing methods.
In 1999, another study by Andrew J. Wakefield rekindled the debate on vaccinations. The paper said the MMR vaccine -- which immunizes people against measles, mumps and rubella -- may cause autism and other ailments.
Later that year, the British Medical Journal debunked the study as an "elaborate fraud." Wakefield ultimately lost his license to practice medicine and the study was retracted. But it has not faded from memory.
Social media effect
Facebook groups like "Stop Mandatory Vaccinations" have also helped to lead the anti-vaccine charge.
Stop Mandatory Vaccinations, for example, shares videos from parents with horror stories about how vaccinations have harmed their children. The page also includes statements and videos from doctors casting doubt on the safety of vaccines and the belief that they cause autism.
Facebook told CNN it is working to create solutions to battle the misinformation. It is considering eliminating specific groups from Facebook recommendations and pushing posts from such groups farther down in users' news feeds.
In response to the misinformation spreading on its site, Pinterest banned any vaccine-related searches. In fact, the only information available on the topic is a board posted by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
Still, a simple Google search for the words "vaccine" and "Pinterest" returned a link to the board "Vaccines," which includes memes questioning the safety of vaccines and the sanity of people who give them to children.
A Pinterest representative told UPI: "We don't allow advice when it has immediate and detrimental effects on a pinner's health or on public safety. This includes promotion of false cures for terminal or chronic illnesses and anti-vaccination advice."
Pinterest said that "one of our most effective proactive strategies is to identify and block websites of people or groups that explicitly affiliate themselves with health misinformation. This immediately removes their content from our platform and prevents people from saving new pins from their websites to Pinterest."
YouTube has moved to limit the attention anti-vaccine groups get on the video-sharing platform by pulling advertising from videos spreading false information and eliminating them from recommendation engines.
Diseases coming back
Groups and individuals on social media that host and spread anti-vaccine conversations have been blamed for outbreaks throughout the United States and around the world.
For example, the anti-vaccine movement has been linked to a multistate measles outbreak between December 2014 and January 2015.
The World Health Organization called global "vaccination hesitancy" one of the top 10 global threats in 2019.
"Measles, for example, has seen a 30 percent increase in cases globally. The reasons for this rise are complex, and not all of these cases are due to vaccine hesitancy. However, some countries that were close to eliminating the disease have seen a resurgence," the WHO says on its website.
A report from the National Bureau of Economic Research says that groups like Stop Mandatory Vaccinations serve as an "echo" chamber that help "anti-vaccine Facebook groups disseminate false stories beyond the groups."
In late 2018, the United Kingdom's Advertising Standards Authority found Stop Mandatory Vaccinations and its the page's creator Larry Cook guilty of creating misleading ads based on unproven evidence.
The Royal Society for Public Health in the U.K. in December called social media a "breeding ground for misleading information and negative messaging." A 2017 editorial published in Human Vaccines and Immunotherapeutics pointed to the pervasiveness of anti-vaccine messages on social media as an "overlooked danger."
Fears coming to life
As of Feb. 28, a new measles outbreak has spread to 11 states and infected 206 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Our worst fears are being realized as measles outbreaks spread across the country. I reached out to the technology industry with an urgent request to work together to combat the dangerous spread of vaccine misinformation online," Kyle E. Yasuda, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said in a news release. "Pediatricians are working in our clinics and our communities, talking with families one on one about how important vaccines are to protect their children's health."
Medical experts agree.
"Social media companies need to -- and are, I am happy to say -- work on addressing misinformation on their platforms. And social media users: Make sure you verify information before you share it," Guidry said.