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Refuting a lie that won’t die: Taking the fight for vaccines beyond the doctor’s office

Vanessa Lam, a research associate with FSPH's UCLA Center for Health Advancement, Dr. Steven Teutsch, FSPH adjunct professor of health policy and management and Dr. Jonathan FieldingFSPH distinguished professor of health policy and management, authored a blog post for Health Affairs about the anti-vaccination movement.

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Date: 
Thursday, February 28, 2019
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In the 1990s, the Lancet gave life to a disastrous lie. The vaccine lie was perpetrated with a study by British researcher Andrew Wakefield, MD, that falsely linked the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism in young children. The findings were later discovered to have been a fraud, and the study was fully retracted by the Lancet. Still, for many parents, the fear of autism outweighed the risk of vaccine-preventable disease (VPD). Twenty years later, the anti-vaccination movement remains a threat to global health. Despite science showing that vaccine benefits definitively outweigh the risks (and that autism is not a risk at all), the anti-vaccination movement still deliberately misrepresents vaccine risk. Properly vaccinating children is part of our social contract to enable all children to learn and grow, including those who cannot be vaccinated and are at particular risk of contracting contagious diseases.

Some believe their children are protected by the vaccination of other children (a perverse “not in my backyard” stance), but herd immunity depends on very high and consistent vaccination rates. Any drop in vaccination rates, especially in children and however brief, puts the larger community at risk. The median rate of kindergarteners whose parents filed non-medical exemptions increased 150 percent from the 2009–10 to 2017–18 school years. These non-medical exemptions weaken the herd. The danger of dropping vaccination rates is becoming more obvious as hotspots of unvaccinated children result in outbreaks of VPD, such as the recent outbreaks in North Carolina and the Pacific Northwest.

The latest new fuel for today’s anti-vaccination movement comes from inadequate curation of information. Through social media, sensationalized lies reach more people than the truth—and reach them faster. Members of online social networks echo and reinforce the same lies. Eighty percent of Americans turn to the internet for answers to their health-related questions and are very likely to be exposed to lies that lead to harmful medical decisions. Parents who file for non-medical exemptions tend to have low science knowledge and be susceptible to pseudo-scientific explanations. There are numerous anti-vaccination resources available online, masquerading as reputable sources and preying on these concerned parents. The vaccine lie lives on, and it is up to state legislators, state medical boards, health professionals, and content curators to set the record straight.

Read more in Health Affairs