Anti-vaccine movement is one of the ten threats to global health

Publicação: 11 de April de 2019

New research published in the Vaccine Magazine found that anti-vax content on Facebook now embraces genuine beliefs, including the notion that polio does not exist

According to the WHO, vaccination prevents 2 to 3 million deaths per year, and another 1.5 million could be avoided if vaccination coverage were improved in the world

Recently the anti-vaccine movement was included by the World Health Organization (WHO) in its report on the ten greatest risks to global health. According to the Organization, anti-vax movements are as dangerous as the viruses on this list because they threaten to reverse the progress made in combating vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and poliomyelitis. Still according to the WHO, the reasons why people choose to not vaccinate are complex, and include lack of confidence, complacency and difficulties accessing them. There are also those who claim religious reasons to not vaccinate themselves or their children. “Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways to prevent diseases. It currently avoids 2 to 3 million deaths a year, and another 1.5 million could be avoided if vaccine coverage were improved in the world”, said WHO.

However, anti-vax movements have been growing all over the world, including in Brazil, which has always been an international example. According to data from the National Immunization Program of the Ministry of Health (PNI / MS), in the last two years the goal of having 95% of the target population vaccinated was not reached. Important vaccines such as Tetra Viral, which prevents measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox, had the lowest coverage rate: 70,69% in 2017. According to public health experts, if vaccination of the Brazilian population were adequate, a new outbreak of measles would not be established in the country. According to the Ministry of Health, approximately 300 million doses of 25 different types of vaccines are administered each year, at 36 health posts spread throughout Brazil. That is, there is no shortage of free vaccines or access to them.

Professor Dr. Carlos Graeff Teixeira, from the Biomedical Parasitology Group of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS), suggests that Brazilian scientists accelerate a movement to publicize the usefulness of vaccines, with scientific information about their benefits, positive messages and words of enlightenment, including revering scientists who have already fought this struggle, such as Oswaldo Cruz. For him, it is worrying the resurgence of infections where vaccination coverage has fallen. In the United States, for example, the President of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Kyle E. Yasuda sent letters to CEOs of three major technology companies – Google (owner of YouTube), Facebook (owner of Instagram and WhatsApp) and Pinterest – highlighting the growing threat that online misinformation of vaccines represents to children’s health. The document “AAP Urges Major Technology Companies to Combat Vaccine Misinformation Online points out that while robust scientific research demonstrates that vaccines are safe, effective, and life-saving, inaccurate and misleading content proliferates online. As parents increasingly turn to social media to gather information and form opinions about their children’s health, the consequences of inaccurate information are displayed offline. “While Facebook, Google and Pinterest have indicated that they are taking steps to address the unique vulnerabilities on their respective platforms, the Academy calls for more work to be done to ensure that parents are equipped with reliable information from confirmed sources of vaccines”, says the letter.

New research published in March in the Vaccine MagazineIt’s not all about autism: The emerging landscape of anti-vaccination sentiment on Facebook found that anti-vax content on Facebook now adopts genuine beliefs, including the idea that polio does not exist. Still, according to the report, the researchers found that anti-vaxxers now include several distinct groups, including people selling alternative medicines (such as yogurt for HPV). Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine, says this tends to confirm the depth and breadth of how Facebook is promoting the anti-vaxxer movement. Every year, 1,5 million children worldwide die of vaccine-preventable diseases – and the so-called “anti-vaxxers” contribute to it. To learn more about the antivaccine motions, the communication advisory of the Brazilian Society of Tropical Medicine (SBMT) talked with Dr. Peter Hotez, a scientist who explains in his book why vaccines do not cause autism and why conspiracy theorists need to be challenged. Check the full interview below:

BSTM: Why are the anti-vaccination movements gaining so much power in the world?

Dr. Peter Hotez: It’s because they have gone from a fringe group to become their own media empire with 500 websites, amplified on social media, especially FB, but also now dominating e-commerce sites like Amazon – Amazon is now the largest promoter of fake antivax books. The point being most of the information from the internet about vaccines is fake news.

BSTM: Is it correct to state that vaccine hesitancy is a primarily upper-class phenomenon and that most refusal cases involve people from elevated socioeconomic categories?

Dr. Peter Hotez: That may be true of the American style antivax movement, and possibly Europe as well, but in other parts of the world the antivaccine movement takes different forms. I worry that the American antivax movement could spread to a nation like Brazil, with disastrous consequences.

BSTM: In your opinion, are medical arguments against vaccines easy to be refuted from a scientific standpoint? Why?

Dr. Peter Hotez: He science overwhelmingly supports vaccines. In my book ‘Vaccines did not cause rachel’s autism’ i provide supporting evidence in over one million children that vaccines do not cause austim, also i discuss the science of autism and how it begins in early fetal development – in pregnancy. The provaccine side wins the science but are we losing or we may have already lost the media war.

BSTM: Do you believe that solid statements from the Academia, media and other opinion formers can be of any assistance?

Dr. Peter Hotez: Yes it’s important that academics speak out and take a more public role. Simply writing papers for scholarly journals is no longer sufficient to combat the info wars or media wars. The public needs to identify with scientists, i believe. I wrote about this in Plos Biology in an article entitled “Crafting your scientist brand”.

BSTM: Are vaccines victims to their own success as an immunization instrument? Why?

Dr. Peter Hotez: Perhaps to some extent because in countries like Brazil parents seldom see measles. Of course that is also changing for a different reason with the measles epidemic in Venezuela and the Venezuelan diaspora to Colombia and Amazonas and Roraima in Brazil. But even then in the middle of measles outbreaks in the US, the antivaccine movement is still promoting new antivaccine legislation.

BSTM: Experts have attributed the phenomenon to a lack of government investments in prevention and the anti-vaccination movement. Do you agree?

Dr. Peter Hotez: I believe that governments need to do more to promote vaccine advocacy. For instance the Australian government has just launched a $12 million vaccine promotion campaign. It’s unfortunate that we have to invest money for this purpose, but until we take the bold step of dismantling the antivax media empire, i think it will be a necessary one.

BSTM: If vaccination is one of the best tools to prevent diseases and save lives, why has it been seen with such negativity by the population?

Dr. Peter Hotez: Answered that a bit above. It’s the phony misinformation campaign now dominating the internet. We still do not understand their motivation. In some cases they are making money through selling phony and harmful fake autism remedies, in other cases some have alleged that Russian bots and trolls are involved, but i think we do not really know.

BSTM: The anti-vaccination movement was included by the World Health Organization (WHO) in its report on the top-10 global health hazards in 2019. In your opinion, what can we expect from this movement in the short and mid-terms and what can be done about it?

Dr. Peter Hotez: I’m glad that WHO has finally recognized the threat of the antivax movement. I first sounded the alarm in 2017 in the NY Times in an article i wrote called “How the antivaxxers are winning” but even in 2016 i wrote a piece in Plos Medicine called “Texas and its measles epidemics” so it’s good this has reached the level of WHO, even if they are a little late. But now dismantling the antivax media empire will be a lot of work and i’m not sure the political will is there to take it on. I have launched my own campaign, but in the end i’m just an academic pediatrician-scientist and parent of an adult daughter with autism who wrote a book. We’ll need much more than that!

BSTM: Would you like to add anything else?

Dr. Peter Hotez: Just thank you for raising attention to this important issue. I hope that Brazil is successful in blocking this awful antivaccine or antivax movement.