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Health expert calls for social media, search engines to combat anti-vax movement

A group of public health scientists have called for social media organisations and search engines to do more to prevent the spread of inaccurate information around vaccines, as well as improve vaccine literacy to understand how they work and why.

A statement by scientists and medical experts published in the Journal of Health Communication has made several recommendations to combat the fallen global vaccination rates, fuelled by the powerful worldwide anti-vax movement.

The World Health Organisation now says vaccine hesitancy is one of the world’s top 10 global health threats – up in the same group as anti-microbial resistance, Ebola, air pollution and climate change.

A pioneer in the areas of health communication, Harvard Kennedy School senior fellow Scott Ratzan explained it's "hard for people around the world to understand the consequences of this misinformation that's happening in our modern media". 

He told TVNZ1's Breakfast that while in the past, journalists would discern facts through "evidence-based tests", the ready availability of information in the modern world has led to "misinformation malpractice".

"Today, with Google searches and chatrooms everywhere from Facebook to corporate sites, we have people who are able to be purveyors of information that is just downright wrong," he said.

"[The MMR vaccine] has prevented millions of deaths around the world and today, we're facing this misinformation malpractice that's hurting everybody."

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Dr Helen Petousis-Harris talks to Breakfast about why there has been a significant rise in measles cases globally. Source: Breakfast

He said the rise in measles cases could be related back to a debunked 1998 medical paper linking the MMR vaccine to autism.

"There's a celebrity status. It's been associated with this idea of MMR and autism, and it's fuelled this anti-vaccination movement," he said. "In and of itself, that's not everything. Sometimes, it's access. Sometimes, it's misunderstanding that 'I know more than my doctor'."

Mr Razan said freedom of speech can be murky in the area of debunking the spread of misinformation.

"The United States Supreme Court and others around the world have supported - you don't have the right to freedom of speech to yell 'fire!' in a crowded movie theatre, but you do have a right to communicate appropriately.

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Dr O'Sullivan says taxpayer-funded healthcare professionals had no place being at a screening of 'Vaxxed' in Kaitaia. Source: 1 NEWS

"We have to figure out what that balance is." 

He said the statement, put together by a group of public health and medical experts in Salzburg, Austria, has a number of ideas, including "helping people make appropriate health decisions, looking at the evidence that's at hand".

However, he noted that they "cannot lock out everything," adding, "we sort of have a human rights obligation as well to give people access to information".

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Hilary Barry and Jack Tame give their two cents to the screening of an anti-vaccination movie. Source: Breakfast

He also stressed the importance for the news "to be able to be as accurate as possible and have authoritative sources", noting the "incremental ability of science to be able to refute a strong anti-vax movement".

"What we call for is vaccine literacy, which is not just knowing how a vaccine works, but knowing why I have to give it to myself, how it works for community protection - not this scientific wonk term of 'herd immunity', but I need to protect my community.

"We need police, we need firefighters, we need sanitation – we also need to have 95 per cent of our kids vaccinated before they go to school. It protects us all."

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Harvard Kennedy School senior fellow Scott Ratzan discussed the spread of misinformation online. Source: Breakfast