As Manchester confirms a spike in measles cases, Facebook finally agrees to tackle misinformation

MMR Vaccination
Glen Black

Public Health England has confirmed Manchester has a measles outbreak. And it urged parents to follow through with full measles vaccinations in children. The news comes after UNICEF also warned of an “alarming” surge in measles cases across the world.

Facebook meanwhile has finally announced it will take action to stop the spread of “vaccine misinformation”.

“Alarmingly high levels”

There have been 32 cases of measles across Greater Manchester so far in 2019. Kristina Poole of Public Health England North West said the “the majority of the cases are in unvaccinated children”. Measles was recorded in the region 144 times in 2018 and 127 times in 2017. There have been outbreaks in other UK cities since October 2017, linked to cases in Europe.

On 1 March, UNICEF warned that global cases of measles were reaching “alarmingly high levels”. It noted that between 2017 and 2018, ten countries were responsible for 74% of the increase. Ukraine, Philippines and Brazil led the list. Ukraine saw 30,338 more cases between 2017 and 2018, bringing its total to 35,120.

UNICEF emphasised the need for proper immunisation against the virus through MMR vaccinations. Executive director Henrietta Fore said:

We have a safe, effective and inexpensive vaccine against a highly contagious disease – a vaccine that has saved almost a million lives every year over the last two decades… lack of action today will have disastrous consequences for children tomorrow.

And Poole mirrored this call for people in Manchester. She said that the virus can “spread rapidly” amongst communities when people aren’t fully vaccinated.

Threat to global health

The World Health Organisation (WHO) listed “vaccine hesitancy” in its Ten threats to global health in 2019. The WHO specifically mentioned measles as one such example. And it said that while “reasons why people choose not to vaccinate are complex”, it has led to countries close to eliminating measles now experiencing a comeback.

This is true of the UK. The WHO said in September 2017 that the UK had eliminated measles for the first time. This meant that, while it still existed in the country, the virus wasn’t able to spread. But in 2018, the UK experienced outbreaks again.

A report by the Royal Society for Public Health in January singled out social media as a leading reason for vaccine hesitancy. The society said more than half of new parents in the UK had been exposed to ‘anti-vaxxer‘ information online. There was frequently “misleading information and negative messaging” about vaccinations. One such notable example is the claim that MMR causes autism. But this has been disproved by numerous studies, including one published on 4 March.

Facebook and YouTube have been highlighted as culprits in allowing this information to spread. The Guardian said anti-vaxxer propaganda “dominated” searches for vaccine information on Facebook.

Facebook taking action

On 8 March, Facebook announced plans to tackle “vaccine misinformation”. Vice president of global policy management Monika Bickert said the company will reduce the reach of pages, groups and ads across Facebook and Instagram. It will also look at ways of sharing accurate information. However, Facebook stopped short of saying it would get rid of such information.

Herd immunity

Anti-vaxxers are not the only reason for exploding infection rates across the UK and globally. As postdoctoral researcher into vaccines Samatha Vanderslott said:

The serious downside of so much attention paid to anti-vaxxers is that other issues remain hidden… Less popular topics include those of poverty and exclusion, along with inadequate supply of and access to vaccine services, both on a global and a local level.

On the other hand, the role of herd immunity in preventing outbreaks can’t be understated. It helps those unable to take the vaccine, such as very young children and vulnerable adults. Essential vaccinations are free and widely available in the UK. Ignoring them puts us all in danger.

Featured image via UCLA Health/YouTube

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  • Show Comments
    1. Very dissapointed that what I thought was a bastion of progressive free think journalism is now succuming to “project fear” of the establishment regarding vaccination.
      The case for safety of vaccines has never been proven, there are no placebo controlled safety studies, and before the pharmacutical industry came up with a product to sell measles was not considered a threat to global health.

    2. Exactly! I grew up with no measles vacs. We all got measles. It wasn’t considered dangerous at all. I’m sure, as with every other illness, that for people who are malnourished or have other serious illnesses it would be more complicated. I read some research a while back that showed a correlation between having measles as a child and not getting breast cancer in later life? I can’t find it now :0( But my point is that we don’t know much re the immune system. It could well be that experiencing and surviving many childhood illnesses could protect us in later life?

    3. Measles is a highly infectious viral disease which can lead to serious complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). In addition, measles infection damages and suppresses the whole immune system. This means that people who have had measles are more likely to catch other infectious diseases. This effect can last for as much as three years after they recover from measles.

      Worldwide, measles is still a major cause of death, especially among children in resource-poor countries. In 2016 about 90,000 people died of measles. This was the first year on record when global measles deaths fell below 100,000 a year. However, in 2017 global measles deaths rose by over 20% to 110,000 deaths – over 300 deaths a day. This increase was due to gaps in vaccination coverage, i.e.: parents afraid to get their children vaccinated because of misinformation spread by anti-vaxxers.

      Measles is not a disease we can ignore. It is not harmless. This is not some plot by Big Pharma to sell more drugs. It is life-saving medicine. By spreading misinformation about vaccines, you are literally killing innocent children.

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