Internet giants must do more to prevent anti-vax information spread - scientists

An international group of leading public health scientists are calling on internet giants to do more in preventing the spread of inaccurate information about vaccinations.

On Tuesday, The Salzburg Statement on Vaccination Acceptance was released in the Journal of Health Communication highlighting of health professionals' concerns over misinformation and fake news about vaccinations.

The statement says that the goal of scientists and public health professionals was to advocate for vaccines that "save lives, make communities more productive and strengthen health systems".

"Every effort will also be made to communicate the dangers associated with these childhood illnesses to parents and communities since this information seems to have been lost in the present-day narrative," the statement says.

"Vaccines have prevented hundreds of millions of childhood infectious diseases such as polio, measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, pertussis [whooping cough], tetanus, hepatitis B, meningitis, rotavirus, and HPV infections that lead to cervical cancer."

While great strides are being made in increasing access to immunisations globally, the scientists worry that the "anti-vax movement threatens to undermine the hard-fought public health victories that comprehensive vaccine coverage represents".

In April, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said an outbreak of measles in New York had been fuelled by misinformation - particularly a vocal fringe of parents which oppose vaccines, believing, contrary to scientific studies, that they can cause autism.

Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation labelled vaccine hesitancy one of the top ten threats to global health, noting a 30 percent increase in measles cases globally.

The scientists are calling on search engines and social media organisations to develop principles that highlight "levels of evidence" in vaccine information being provided, so inaccurate or disproven claims can be identified. 

They want this information monitored just as sexually explicit, violent and threatening messages are.

Internet NZ's outreach and engagement director Andrew Cushen told Newshub it can be difficult to identify what is trustworthy online.

"That challenge comes up in a wide variety of areas as we move into an era, with challenges about fake news, misinformation and disinformation," he said.

Cushen said internet giants should be encouraged to highlight credible sources.

"Users of the internet are going to see more opportunities for saying 'this is someone that I can trust'. That is going to be healthy for a whole pile of different debates.

"Allowing users to sit there and say 'okay, that is someone who Google is helping me understand that I can trust' will be perhaps a useful step."

That recommendation to internet giants is on top of suggestions from the scientists that Government agencies, health professionals and educators join forces in pointing out disproven information.

"This is a man-made, dangerous and wholly unnecessary crisis. We intend to keep up a steady drumbeat of accurate vaccine communications until the traditional public consensus in support of childhood immunization is restored," editor of the Journal of Health Communication, Dr Scott Ratzan, said.

Several countries around the world are dealing with measles outbreaks. As of July 2, 154 measles cases have been confirmed in New Zealand. Last month, the Institute of Environmental Science and Research found most who had caught measles were not vaccinated.

The full list of recommendations can be found here.


Contact Newshub with your story tips: