#WorldImmunizationWeek 2021: Undoing #VaccineHesitancy and #AntiVaxxer Misinformation

April 30th 2021
Justin Varholick, Sangy Panicker, and Jeremy D. Bailoo

TL;DR Get vaccinated, do not spread misinformation, educate your friends, family and colleagues, and confront your fears.

Twenty five years ago, Andrew Wakefield published a series of fabricated studies claiming that the Measles Mumps Rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism—giving birth to the modern “anti-vaxxer” movement which continues to exert its influence on public health to this day. Yet, we need only to look back at the last five years to see how pervasive misinformation campaigns can have a significant impact on #VaccineHesitancy, further amplifying the #Anti-Vaxxer movement. As we highlighted in our previous post, four years of sidelining science and scientific expertise have contributed in significant ways to the crisis we are seeing with respect to COVID-19 #VaccineHesitancy.

The MMR vaccine saves lives and does NOT cause autism

Wakefield gained ~674,000 USD as a consequence of his false claims. Since then, millions of dollars, which could otherwise have been spent understanding the causes and potential interventions for autism spectrum disorders, have instead been allocated to disentangling the truth. The fallout from those false claims is still being felt today.

Although approximately 25.5 million lives have been saved because of the measles vaccine alone (2000-2019), global eradication of vaccine preventable diseases can only be achieved by following prescribed immunization schedules. Consider, in the year 2000, 539,000 people died from measles—that number fell to 207,500 in 2019 because of vaccination campaigns. However, annual reported measles incidence decreased from 145 to 18 cases per 1 million population during 2000–2016; the lowest incidence occurred in 2016, but by 2019 incidence had risen to 120 cases per 1 million population. Without a vaccination program in place, it is estimated that 1.3 million people would die yearly from measles alone.

Estimated annual number of measles deaths with and without vaccination programs worldwide, 2000–2019 Source: CDC.

We have presented the evidence which shows that vaccinations DO NOT cause autism—and landmark judicial rulings, such as the Omnibus Autism Proceeding, have been made in support of this conclusion. Yet, “anti-vaxxer” campaigns continue and outbreaks of otherwise preventable diseases continue to threaten our population, including our most vulnerable; the children and the elderly. Disease outbreaks also threaten animals—for example, non-human primates can contract measles from humans.

Fact: Researchers who work with non-human primates are required to have the measles vaccination or a titer (a quantitative measurement of the amount of antibodies found in the blood) showing proof of immunity.

COVID-19 vaccines save lives

The world has faced an unprecedented crisis in the COVID-19 pandemic, with 146 million cases and over 3 million deaths globally since the start of the pandemic. While approximately 35% of the US population is displaying #VaccineHesitancy or an #Anti-Vaxxer mentality, the global disparity in vaccine access highlights the #privilege of individuals in the US—all the while with cases in Europe, India, Canada, South and Central America increasing at alarming rates with far more limited access to vaccines. Globally, new COVID-19 cases increased for the ninth consecutive week, with nearly 5.7 million new cases reported in the last week—surpassing previous highs.

As we highlighted in our previous post, COVID-19 #VaccineHesitancy can be traced directly back to public misinformation campaigns by the Trump administration, with Republican males being far less likely to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Yet the data highlight that the COVID-19 vaccine, without question, saves lives. In terms of the vaccines approved for use in the US and globally, efficacy is high for most vaccines—preventing severe COVID-19 and COVID-19 infection at rates between 85-100%. Moreover, the CDC reports that the rate of death after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine is 0.0017%. It is important to note that no causal link has been found between those deaths and the COVID-19 vaccine itself—they are currently considered to be coincidental. We cover these issues and more in far greater detail in our previous post.

Fact: The COVID-19 vaccine saves non-human animal lives too.

Bonobos were among the primates vaccinated against Covid-19 at San Diego zoo. Photograph: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance/Reuters

Breaking the cycle of misinformation

So what can we do? The first thing you can do is to be judicious about what you read, consider the sources and vet the facts. The second thing you can do is share information only which you personally have fact-checked. Thirdly, you can also tag posts with #FactCheckNeeded or #AskScientists hashtags. The infographic below can help with this.

Why does this matter? Well, with respect to “anti-vaccination” websites:

American searches from google.com show that over 70% of all vaccination websites are against vaccines. This number is in stark contrast to other countries such as Canada where a similar search yields only 17%.

So the type of information available to an American exploring whether vaccines are safe is massively biased. A research study in 2010 identified that 99% of those “anti-vaccination” websites contained information that was disingenuous. Despite the missive of mis-information that is out there, particularly in America, it is heartening to know that most Americans still support the use of vaccines and acknowledge that the benefits outweigh the potential for harms. At the same time, only 55% of the American public trusts medical scientists for full and accurate information on childhood vaccines. Some of this is a consequence of the fallout from the Wakefield scandal, but some blame must be allocated to the current political climate and sentiments expressed by misinformed celebrities.

So, just as we must do our part in terms of not spreading misinformation, equal emphasis must be placed on education of the public. It is our duty as members, as scientists, and of a larger public, to disseminate information that is vetted, and to separate our own beliefs from the facts. It is easy to be a willful participant in the noise that often surrounds us in the news and social media, but perhaps consider that the comforts of the world you live in are in part a consequence of living in a vaccine-preventable disease free state. It was not so long ago (1950) that the lack of a polio vaccine led to debilitating developmental defects in our population. Yet, with 3 million deaths globally as a consequence of COVID-19, we should not need a stark reminder.

Photo showing polio patients at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center in California in 1953.

Finally, confront your fears—and it is reasonable to have such fears—but they must be balanced with facts and separated from anecdotes and belief. These videos are nice examples of how you can do so.