Last year saw the largest number of measles cases in the U.S. since 1992. Several medical experts have indicated that much of the increase is due to low immunization rates as a result of vaccine misinformation.
One common misconception about vaccines is that they cause autism. This came about after Andrew Wakefield, a doctor who was later stripped of his medical license, published an inaccurate study in 1998, claiming a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and children with autism. His study was debunked in 1999 and fully retracted in 2010.
Unfortunately, however, the damage was done, according to Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
“The whole eruption about whether the measles vaccine causes autism started on the basis of an entirely fraudulent publication which was admitted later to be fraudulent and has been retracted,” he told Yahoo Finance’s editor-in-chief, Andy Serwer.
“But you can’t seem to get that rumor put to bed even now, more than 20 years later, after hundreds of thousands of children have been carefully studied and that consequence of autism has been thoroughly debunked. And yet, how many people out there are still worried about it once you start down that road?”
Collins made the comments during a conversation that aired in an episode of Yahoo Finance’s “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.
‘The anti-vaxxers are really good at using social media’
Social media plays a major role in disseminating this misinformation. In January, Buzzfeed reported that Facebook (FB) was still allowing anti-vax ads on its platform, despite the company earlier stating that it would try to curb the flow of misinformation.
Facebook responded to the controversy by stating to BuzzFeed: “Facebook does not have a policy that bans advertising on the basis that it expresses opposition to vaccines. Our policy is to ban ads containing vaccine misinformation.”
“The anti-vaxxers are really good at using social media,” Collins said. “They sometimes run circles around us at NIH and CDC, because of the way in which they can quickly spread information that sounds really quite terrifying and cause parents to begin to question whether their children should have that measles vaccine.”
Social media platforms not only allow vaccine misinformation to run rampant, but also general misconceptions about health and medications. A woman in Colorado lost her 4-year-old son from the flu, after deciding not to give him the prescribed medication for it known as Tamiflu. NBC News reported that she had consulted with a Facebook group she was a part of, Stop Mandatory Vaccination, for “natural remedies” and members suggested things like breastmilk, thyme, and elderberry.
Facebook responded to the controversy by stating: “We don’t want vaccine misinformation on Facebook, which is why we’re working hard to reduce it everywhere on the platform, including in private groups.”
The anti-vax moment “deeply concerns me, and puzzles me,” Collins said. “I think anybody who knows the history of how the illnesses for which we now have vaccines have killed so many people, including many, many children — you just wonder: How could we take one of the greatest advances of human biomedical research and decide that I don’t want to use that on my child?”
‘They don’t recognize that this is not a trivial illness’
It’s not just measles vaccines that anti-vax parents are refusing to get for their children. Overall sentiment towards vaccines has shifted. According to a recent Gallup poll, 84% of Americans say vaccinating children is important, which is a 10% decrease from 2001. And 10% of adults still believe there is a link between vaccines and autism, a 4% increase from 2015.
“I think it is a matter of some complacency that people who are saying their children don’t need vaccines have never seen a child die of measles, and they don’t recognize that this is not a trivial illness,” Collins said.
WHO data indicates that nearly 20 million children in 2018 did not receive any measles vaccine, despite the fact that it’s between “97% to 98% effective,” according to NIH Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci.
According to 2017 data from the CDC, among children aged 19-35 months, 91.1% have received the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine, 91.9% have received the polio vaccine, 90.6% have received the chickenpox vaccine, and 83.4% have received the Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis (DTP) vaccine.
Measles was declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000, but the number of recent cases worries Collins that the disease will soon lose that designation.
“We’re not ending it. Not when so many are refusing vaccines, and we’ve lost the herd immunity,” he said, referring to protections unvaccinated individuals, like newborns, receive when a sufficient proportion of the general population is vaccinated.
“And we will see children — if something doesn’t happen — die in this country of a preventable disease called measles, of this resistance. It’s heartbreaking.”
Adriana is an associate editor for Yahoo Finance. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @adrianambells.