Covid-19 misinformation is breathing new life into the anti-vaccine movement

published on Monday, July 04, 2022 at 09:25

As misinformation about Covid-19 continues to thrive, more parents across the United States are questioning the need for other vaccines for their children, and more adults are choosing to forgo shots, even those that have long been proven safe is.

The politicization of vaccines against Covid-19 has fueled the anti-vaccine movement and contributed to the decline in the number of vaccinations against measles, polio and other dangerous diseases.

Parents “are asking if they (the vaccines) are really necessary or if we can give them later,” says Jason Terk, a Texas pediatrician and spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“It’s not the majority of parents, but we’re seeing higher numbers,” he adds.

Anti-vaccine messages on social media are being reinforced by conservative political figures as well as campaigns overseas whose misinformation about vaccines emerged before the pandemic.

And as vaccination rates fall, there are fears that largely eradicated diseases will reemerge in many parts of the world.

In the United States, the percentage of preschoolers who received the recommended immunizations fell by one point to 94% between 2020 and 2021.

“I call it parallel contagion,” Terk said. “It appears to be driven by a hesitation about Covid-19 vaccines and a growing distrust of vaccines and the institutions we have come to rely on to keep us sane.”

In some states, the changes were particularly striking at the height of the pandemic. Researchers found a 47% drop in vaccination rates in Texas for five-month-old babies and a 58% drop for 16-month-old babies between 2019 and 2020.

These researchers wrote in the journal Vaccine that these declines were due to lockdowns, vaccination exemptions, but also an “aggressive anti-vaccine movement in Texas.”

In Washington state, childhood immunization rates fell 13% in 2021 from pre-pandemic levels, and Michigan’s infant immunization rate fell to 69.9% last year, the lowest level in a decade.

– Adults too –

Adult and adolescent rates have also fallen for vaccines that protect against diseases such as influenza, hepatitis, measles and tetanus, according to health consultancy Avalere.

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

Social media helped create a coalition of anti-vaccine, libertarian and conservative politicians. According to David Broniatowski, a professor at George Washington University, this has been reinforced by disinformation actors from Russia and elsewhere.

“People have been against vaccines for as long as vaccines have existed, but have become more sophisticated over the past 10 years, and a lot of that comes from the ability to organize across borders on social media,” said Broniatowski, who studies vaccine misinformation.

If anti-vaccination, libertarians and foreign actors aren’t necessarily coordinating, he says they’ve “found common ground” in opposing mandatory vaccination.

“One of the biggest changes we’ve seen is that vaccines have gone from being a health issue to a civil rights and political rights issue,” he added.

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

Mr Broniatowski says foreign disinformation agents are using vaccines to “mobilize part of the population”.

Research by the Center for European Policy Analysis showed that China and Russia had promoted disinformation about the Covid-19 vaccine, in part to show Western governments were incompetent and untrustworthy.

“These actors have made a concerted effort to undermine the position of science because it serves their political purposes,” Broniatowski said.

The problem is also growing worldwide. A United Nations report revealed last year that 23 million children worldwide did not receive routine vaccinations in 2020.

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