Published on 16 August 2019
A University of Sunderland academic is warning about the dangers of social media anti-vaccination messages as Boris Johnson orders urgent action to protect children against measles.
The disease can be stopped through two doses of the MMR vaccine, but immunisation rates have been falling in the UK for a number of reasons.
The country has lost its measles-free status, three years after the virus was eliminated in the UK.
In the first quarter of 2019, there were 231 confirmed cases in the UK.
Dr Sophie Hodgetts, a Lecturer in Psychology at the University, believes that inaccurate and misleading anti-vaccination messages on social media could be one reason why inoculation rates are falling.
She said: “If you already think vaccines are bad, chances are you will only search out information that supports that view.
“This information can come from anywhere; Facebook is a good example, but also a lot of other social media and online forums. If you are searching for evidence then you will find a lot of content. That is part of the reason why this issue keeps coming back time and time again.”
Unicef's analysis shows that an estimated 169 million children around the world missed out on the first dose of the measles vaccine between 2010 and 2017 - an average of 21.1 million a year.
Now, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that:
- GPs are being asked to promote catch-up vaccinations for children who may have missed out on both doses
- Social media companies are being urged to quash misleading anti-vaccine messages
- The firms will be invited to a summit to explore how they can better promote accurate vaccination information
Dr Hodgetts said: “The fact that we are still talking about this issue is mind-boggling given that the research is pretty conclusive – that vaccines are safe.
“Whenever a celebrity comes out saying they are either for or against vaccines, the issue gets dragged up all over again. It is a very emotional issue and it plays on a lot of people’s concerns.”
Measles outbreaks in the UK
Many of the UK cases were acquired abroad with some onward spread in under-vaccinated communities.
Just 87% of UK children are receiving their second dose, which is below the 95% target for measles elimination.
The first dose of the MMR vaccine is offered to all one-year-olds. Children are given a second dose of MMR before they start school.
But estimates suggest that in England, one in seven five-year-olds has yet to be fully immunised.
Experts say the drop in uptake may be partly because of complacency - people perceiving the threat of infection as too low to matter. Anti-vaccination messaging on social media may also have a detrimental effect.