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The Vaccine myth: Fears over social media misinformation rise

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Published on 25 April 2019

Vaccines and myths
Vaccines and myths

Incorrect anti-vaccination messages on social media are thought to be one reason why inoculation rates are plummeting, according to a University of Sunderland academic.

Dr Sophie Hodgetts, a Lecturer in Psychology at the University was talking in a special podcast about concerns over the growing number of children who have not been vaccinated against measles.

It comes as new figures covering an eight year period reveal more than half a million children in the UK have not been vaccinated against the infection.

The charity Unicef warned that increasing numbers of youngsters are being left unprotected against measles, which can cause disability and death.

Inaccurate and misleading anti-vaccination messages on social media could be one reason why inoculation rates are falling.

Dr Hodgetts was speaking on the Sunderland Talks podcast – The Truth about Vaccines - which can be downloaded from here

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.

A list of 10 high-income countries shows the US has the highest number of children missing out on their first dose of the vaccine.

Between 2010 and 2017, some 2,593,000 youngsters in the US did not have their first dose of the vaccine.

The second most affected country was France, with 608,000 unvaccinated children over the same time period, followed by the UK, with 527,000.

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.”

And the fear is now that these concerns are leading to some sectors of society turning away from the vaccine.

In the first three months of 2019, more than 110,000 measles cases were reported worldwide - up almost 300% on the same period the year before.

An estimated 110,000 people, most of them children, died from measles in 2017, a 22% rise on the previous year.

Children need two doses of the vaccine for protection, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommending 95% coverage to achieve herd immunity, which offers protection against the disease spreading in the community.

In the UK in 2017, there were 259 measles cases in England, rising to 966 in 2018.

In 2016 and 2017, uptake of the first dose of the MMR vaccine in five-year-olds in the UK exceeded 95% for the first time.

However, two doses of MMR vaccine are required to ensure full protection from measles.

Uptake of the second dose of MMR in five-year-old children is 88% - well below the 95% WHO target.

Unicef said the rates reflected "lack of access, poor health systems, complacency, and in some cases fear or scepticism about vaccines".