The American Academy of Pediatrics, an organization that includes more than 66,000 pediatricians nationwide, has called upon Facebook, Google and Pinterest to help stop the spread of vaccine misinformation online.
“Our worst fears are being realized as measles outbreaks spread across the country,” AAP President Kyle Yasuda wrote in three separate public letters that were sent to the technology giants this week.
In 2019 so far, there have been six measles outbreaks, meaning a cluster of three or more cases. In January, Washington’s governor declared a state of emergency to help curb an outbreak that included 71 cases — the vast majority of which were in unvaccinated individuals. And in New York City, there have been 133 confirmed cases of measles from an outbreak that began in October.
Public health officials say these outbreaks are driven in part by misinformation about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, including a long-discredited study that linked vaccines to autism.
Most parents in the U.S. vaccinate their children against measles based on current public health recommendations. The immunizations provide those children with robust protection against the highly contagious (and previously eliminated in the U.S.) disease. Ninety percent of unvaccinated individuals who come into contact with a person who has measles will contract it themselves, and those who cannot be vaccinated — including children who are too young or are immune-compromised — rely on herd immunity to stay safe.
But in certain pockets of the country, such as Clark County, Washington, the heart of the recent outbreak there, vaccination rates are dropping — falling from 96 percent of kindergartners in 2004-2005 to 84 percent in 2017-2018, KATU 2 reports.
“Vaccines are safe, vaccines are effective, and vaccines save lives,” the AAP’s letters to Google, Facebook and Pinterest say. “And yet, long-debunked theories claiming the opposite proliferate online.”
The reasons why parents choose not to vaccinate are “multifactorial,” Wendy Sue Swanson, a pediatrician and chief of digital innovation at Seattle Children’s Hospital, told HuffPost.
Yet research demonstrates that parents who chose not to vaccinate are swayed by those in their social circles. A 2013 study of parents in Clark County, Washington, found that roughly 70 percent of vaccine-hesitant parents had someone in their social network who was dissuading them from following standard vaccination schedules, suggesting those voices and conversations can be highly influential.
“We acknowledge that people are getting information from all kinds of different sources,” Swanson said. “Parents don’t get to spend very much time, unfortunately, with their kids’ pediatricians.”
“How do we elevate the voice of science?” she said. “If I’m speaking about vaccines, and someone down the road who didn’t go to medical school, who didn’t do residency, who doesn’t understand vaccines and hasn’t taken care of a child with infectious disease or with a life-threatening vaccine-preventable disease, if they’re talking on Facebook, and I’m talking on Facebook, how do we help the reader in some way know the difference?”
In response to the AAP letters, a spokesperson for Pinterest told HuffPost the company will “continue to use AAP resources to guide our work and look forward to continuing our conversation with them.” (A spokesperson for Google declined to comment specifically on the AAP’s letter, and Facebook did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.)
But the companies appear to be acknowledging their role in the spread of vaccine misinformation. In late February, Pinterest announced it had blocked all vaccine-related searches on its site, which it describes as a temporary solution until it can figure out a long-term strategy for anti-vax advice. This week Facebook also announced a crackdown on anti-vax content on its site by lowering the rankings of groups that spread vaccine misinformation and by rejecting anti-vax ads. And Google, which owns YouTube, has also taken what it describes as steps to more effectively highlight credible news sources and stories.
The AAP says, however, that more can and must be done, though what exactly that means at this point is not clear.
“It’s really easy, I think, to say that the easy solution is to just shut something or someone down,” Swanson said. “I’m not sure about that. I think we care deeply about liberty, I think we care deeply about parents feeling like they have access to all the information they need, and I care deeply that this is not about shaming, or silencing or squashing. This is just about elevating the voice of science.”