John Jones, M.S. Biotechnology
Johns Hopkins University Alumnus
In 1796, Edward Jenner devised a method to protect individuals from smallpox by using blisters of someone infected with cowpox to inoculate another person against the virus. This was the genesis of vaccine science. Since that time, the understanding of infectious disease and the mass development and deployment of vaccines has grown immensely. According to the CDC in 2020, the childhood vaccine immunization schedule has grown to include 15 separate vaccines, some of which are combination vaccines such as the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine.1
Due to the proliferation of vaccines and consistent levels of buy-in from the global population, vaccines have essentially eliminated diseases such as measles and outright eradicated strains of the polio virus. Prior to the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, there was a rising undercurrent of anti-vaccine advocacy. The anti vaccine movement works to create hesitancy in the mind of decision makers (typically parents) by presenting misinformation about the source, materials, and potential side effects of vaccines. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), vaccine hesitancy is the “delay in acceptance or outright refusal of vaccines despite availability of vaccination services.” 2
In order for vaccinations to be helpful to an entire community, there must be a certain level of vaccine coverage in effect to provide protection to those that are immunocompromised, allergic to materials used or otherwise contraindicated for a particular vaccine. Herd immunity against a disease like measles requires the population to have 92-95% of its members vaccinated. This level of protection affords a canopy of coverage for the aforementioned individuals that are unable to receive vaccination. By creating and propagating pseudoscientific interpretations of vaccine data and increasing the perception of risk associated with vaccines in children, this protective canopy is eroded, and children are placed at risk of illness and death from preventable illness.
Misinformation about vaccines was once relegated to the fringes of society, but the message against vaccines is now amplified by social media. Facebook has roughly 2.6 billion monthly users, making it the most popular social network in the world. With this size of a network, misinformation has the ability to grow and spread exponentially, allowing individuals nearly equal access to both valid and false information alike. Given the ability of information to be shared repeatedly and for individuals to have repeated exposures, misinformation can embed itself as truth in the minds of parents and caretakers. This is called the illusory truth effect, identified by a study from Villanova and Temple University. According to the experiment done by Hasher, Goldstein and Toppino: “frequency of occurrence is apparently a criterion used to establish the referential validity of plausible statements.” 3 The illusory truth effect is thus defined as the tendency to believe false information as correct following repeated exposure.
This illusory truth effect has the ability to manifest itself in ways that have a direct impact on public health and childcare. Valid information about science and medicine is accessible but oftentimes this data is not written in a manner that is digestible for parents who are trying to inform themselves about decisions that could impact their children long-term. When compared to easily understood graphics, memes, and posts that try to garner support using argumentum ad passions, or, arguments of passion, this inscrutable but truthful information often fails, as the former misinformation can have a greater appeal to parents or caretakers when making medical decisions, despite a lack of evidence.
In the context of the novel coronavirus, parents and caretakers are attempting to protect themselves and their families from the virus by avoiding hospitals, doctor’s offices, and clinics assuming that those places have an elevated risk of exposure to the virus. This combined with any lingering concerns over the safety, necessity and efficacy of vaccines has led to a growth in the incidence rate of preventable illnesses in the United States and abroad. As SARS-CoV-2 has lowered access both directly due to closures and indirectly from fear, vaccination rates have decreased, with the concomitant effect of increasing the spread and proliferation of preventable diseases.
Another example of this can be seen in Europe, where in 2019, there were 808 confirmed cases of measles based on public health data.4 This increase in measles infections coincides directly with increased spread of misinformation leading to vaccination rates falling below the threshold for herd immunity. Health outcomes for children can and are directly affected by misinformation campaigns. Whether the source of misinformation is organic from simply concerned parents or manufactured through the use of bots and troll accounts on social media5, misinformation creates false equivalencies in data through the illusory truth effect and has the capability of eroding public health globally.
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