“Fake news” impacting vaccination rates

AROUND 50 per cent of parents with children under age five are exposed to negative messages on social media about the use of vaccines, according to research commissioned by the Royal Society for Public Health.

The report – Moving the needle – reveals the extent to which social media propagates misinformation about vaccinations, with the perceived risks of side effects a key concern among those who choose not to vaccinate.

The UK maintains world-leading levels of vaccine coverage but the report reveals troubling findings about the extent to which public concern over side effects of vaccination continues to be a barrier to uptake. The authors conclude that "fake news" on social media may be influential in spreading these concerns.

The report found that UK attitudes to vaccines were largely positive, with 91 per cent of parents in agreement that vaccines are important for their children’s health. Trust in healthcare professionals remains high, with doctors and nurses consistently valued as a source of information about vaccines.

The RSPH is calling for a multi-pronged approach to improving and maintaining uptake of vaccinations in the UK. This includes stepped-up efforts to limit "fake news" about vaccinations online and via social media, especially by social media platforms themselves. The RSPH believes vaccinations should be offered in a more diverse range of locations, including high-street pop-ups, gyms and workplaces, utilising the wider public health workforce. Reminder services should also be improved and diversified, such as introducing birthday style social media pop-ups.

Shirley Cramer CBE, Chief Executive, RSPH said: "With the rise of social media, we must guard against the spread of 'fake news' about vaccinations. We have found worrying levels of exposure to negative messages about vaccinations on social media, and the spread of misinformation – if it impacts uptake of vaccines – could severely damage the public’s health.

"It is 21 years since Andrew Wakefield published his infamous and now widely discredited paper on an alleged link between the MMR vaccine and autism, and Europe is still living with the consequences – as we have seen with the resurgence in measles rates in recent years. In the 21st Century it would be unacceptable to allow vaccine-preventable diseases to make a comeback, and it is vital we do all we can to ensure the UK maintains its status as a global leader in vaccination."

Two recent measles outbreaks on the east and west coasts of the United States have been blamed on low vaccination rates and imported cases, with over 200 cases reported including several hospital admissions but no deaths. Most US states only allow opt-outs for religious reasons of vaccinations required for day care or school attendance, but 18 states allow parents to opt out for philosophical reasons.