Civil movement

COVID-19 misinformation bolsters the anti-vaccine movement

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More and more parents are questioning the need for routine vaccinations for young children. Adults are also skipping shots, even for vaccines with a long safety record.

The trend comes amid a wave of misinformation and misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines that has helped stem pandemic-related deaths. The politicization of COVID-19 injections has strengthened the anti-vaccine movement, contributing to the decline of routine vaccinations against measles, polio and other dangerous diseases.

“They ask if these are really needed, or if we can give them later,” said Jason Terk, a Texas pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“It’s not the majority of parents, but we’re seeing a higher number.”

The anti-vaccine movement has grown as its social media messages are amplified by conservative political figures as well as foreign influence operations, whose vaccine misinformation efforts predate the pandemic.

With falling routine immunization rates, concerns are growing about a resurgence of diseases that had been largely eradicated in many parts of the world.

In the United States, the percentage of kindergarteners with recommended vaccinations dropped by one percentage point to 94% in the 2020-21 school year, representing some 35,000 unvaccinated children.

“I call it parallel contagion,” Terk said. “It seems to have originated from a hesitation in COVID-19 vaccinations and a growing distrust of vaccines and the bodies we have relied on to keep us healthy and well.”

Dramatic changes were seen in some states, especially during the height of the pandemic: Researchers found a 47% drop in vaccination rates in Texas among five-month-old children and a 58% drop among 16 months between 2019 and 2020.

The researchers, writing in the scientific journal Vaccine, said the declines resulted from shelter-in-place restrictions and vaccine exemptions, but also from an “aggressive anti-vaccine movement in Texas”.

Washington state reported a 13% drop in childhood vaccination rates in 2021 from pre-pandemic levels and Michigan’s toddler vaccination rate fell last year to 69.9% , the lowest in a decade.

adults too

Inoculation rates among adults and adolescents have also fallen for vaccines that protect against diseases such as influenza, hepatitis, measles, tetanus and shingles, according to health consultancy Avalere, which analyzes claims from insurers.

This led to about 37 million missed vaccination doses from January 2020 to July 2021 for adults and children aged seven and older, Avalere found.

Declines early in pandemic can be attributed to shelter-in-place orders and social distancing, but ‘there is a risk of bleeding’ misinformation about COVID vaccines, which affects other vaccines that have a record longtime security, noted Avalere managing director Jason Hall.

Social media has helped create a coalition that includes real anti-vaccine supporters, libertarians, and conservative political figures. These segments have been amplified by disinformation actors from Russia and elsewhere, said David Broniatowski, a professor at George Washington University and associate director of the school’s Institute for Data, Democracy and Policy. .

“People have been against vaccines since there have been vaccines, but they have become more sophisticated over the past 10 years and a lot of that is due to the ability to organize on social media beyond borders,” said Broniatowski, who researches vaccine misinformation.

He noted that while anti-vaccine activists, libertarians and foreign agents don’t necessarily coordinate, “they have found common cause” in opposing vaccination mandates.

“One of the major shifts we’ve seen is the shift from focusing on vaccines as a health issue to a civil and political rights issue,” he added.

Conspiracy theories have surged during the pandemic, according to a 2021 YouGov poll, which found that 28% of Americans and a significant number of other countries say the truth about the harmful effects of vaccines is “deliberately hidden”.

Foreign actors

Broniatowski said foreign disinformation agents “use vaccines as a corner issue that can mobilize part of the population.”

A 2018 article co-authored by Broniatowski in the American Journal of Public Health found that anti-vaccine Twitter activity was boosted by Russian trolls from 2014 to 2017 as part of an effort to promote discord and undermine trust in the healthcare system.

Research from the Center for European Policy Analysis has shown that China and Russia have promoted disinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine, in part to show that Western governments are incompetent and cannot be trusted.

“There has been a concerted effort by these actors to diminish the position of science because it serves their political purposes,” Broniatowski said.

The problem is also growing globally. A United Nations report last year found that 23 million children worldwide did not receive routine vaccinations in 2020. In the Americas region, the percentage of fully immunized children fell to 82 %, up from 91% in 2016, due to factors such as lack of funding, misinformation about vaccines and instability. .

This will likely create more health risks from illnesses that have been mostly contained.

“We had certain protective thresholds to prevent these diseases from being relevant from a public health perspective,” Terk said.

“The more people who push back, the more likely we are to have pockets of vulnerability.”

Countering misinformation about COVID-19 injections for young children

© 2022 AFP

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