How social media played a role in the measles outbreak

Many medical breakthroughs of the past few decades can be attributed in some part to contributions from technology and the internet. But did you ever think that it would be the internet that might be possible for sending us backward when it comes to fighting disease?

Measles, a disease that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared as eliminated in the U.S. as of the year 2000, has suddenly skyrocketed to outbreak status this year. As of Wednesday, April 25, there have been 695 cases of the vaccine-preventable illness reported in 22 states in just the first few months of this year.

While outbreaks are linked to travelers bringing the disease back to the U.S. from foreign countries, officials from the CDC and U.S. Health and Human Services say the majority of people in the U.S. who contracted the measles were unvaccinated. When many people in a community are not vaccinated, disease spreads quickly, which is what we are seeing now in places such as New York City, where officials passed emergency orders mandating vaccinations to control an outbreak that has reached 334 cases.

What part does the internet play in all this? According to government and healthcare officials, anti-immunization activists have been deliberately spreading inaccurate and misleading information about vaccines online, especially through popular social sharing sites such as Pinterest and Facebook.

Pinterest, which declared a formal policy against posts that promote “self-harm” in 2013, added “anti-vax” content to that list and have been actively removing that type of content since 2017.

Facebook, which has been working hard on damage control after illegal hacks, stolen passwords, election fraud and other scandals, has come under fire again for promoting anti-vaccination material, especially ads targeting women in regions with high numbers of measles cases. The outcry intensified after Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) wrote a letter to founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg asking how Facebook planned to protect users from misleading material about vaccinations.

In March, Facebook finally announced new measures to crackdown on misinformation encouraging antivaccination beliefs being spread by popular pages, posts and people on Facebook. While they are only limiting the reach of the spread of false information, instead of totally removing it like Pinterest, it’s a step in the right direction.

So how can the internet be used for good in the fight against measles and antivax information? By using it for research and education and the sharing of accurate, scientific-based information to counter misinformation when it comes to vaccinations. And don’t be afraid to go old-school and call or talk to your doctor, health-care providers and community leaders to get the real scoop.

Kristy CooperHow social media played a role in the measles outbreak

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