UK Health Service Chief Says 'Fake News' on Social Media Contributes to Increase in Measles Cases

Opponents to efforts to remove philosophical exemptions from school-vaccine requirements rally outside the Washington Capitol, in Olympia, Wash., Wednesday, Feb. 20,2019.
Photo: Rachel La Corte (AP)

NHS England chief Simon Stevens is among the many officials publicly addressing the wave of social media campaigns spreading dangerous misinformation about vaccinations amid ongoing preventable outbreaks.

Speaking at a health summit on Friday, Stevens cited YouTube as well as Facebook-owned Instagram and WhatsApp as among the platforms on which anti-vaxxers are spreading what he said was “fake news” about vaccines, CNN reported Saturday. Stevens said that England “saw more than triple the number of measles cases” than it did during the year prior and “despite the fact that clearly, vaccination works,” per CNN:

Stevens said discussions within the health body have focused on how to stem the spread of anti-vaccination ideas on Instagram and YouTube, and referred to a parent at his daughter’s primary school who had used WhatsApp to express concern about children’s immune systems being “loaded up” with vaccines.

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Like England, the United States is currently battling its own measles crisis that health officials and politicians have attributed in part to misinformation on social media. Last week, YouTube pulled ads from anti-vaccination videos following a report from BuzzFeed News on the problem and amid backlash from advertisers. The Google-owned platform told Gizmodo in a statement at the time that it has “strict policies that govern what videos we allow ads to appear on, and videos that promote anti-vaccination content are a violation of those policies.”

On Friday, Representative Adam Schiff in an open letter called on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to put an end to the promotion of anti-vaxxer content on his e-commerce and streaming platform. The site appeared to pull anti-vaccination content from Prime Video and some search results on Friday, though hard copies were still available for purchase.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at least 159 cases of measles have been confirmed across 10 states from the start of 2019 until Feb. 21, though that number is likely higher given the spike in confirmed cases in Washington state alone since that date. As of Saturday, the state’s Clark County Public Health confirmed 70 cases of measles in the county’s ongoing outbreak. In at least 61 of those cases, the affected individual had not received the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine.

“The scientific and medical communities are in overwhelming consensus that vaccines are both effective and safe,” Schiff wrote in his open letter on Friday. “There is no evidence to suggest that vaccines cause life-threatening or disabling disease, and the dissemination of unfounded and debunked theories about the dangers of vaccinations pose a great risk to public health.”

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Stevens made similar remarks during the summit, according to CNN. The chief executive said that the situation in England is “not being helped on this front by the fact that although nine in 10 parents support vaccination, half of them say they have seen fake messages about vaccination on social media.”

[CNN]

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