THE anti-vaxxer movement was identified as one of the top ten threats to global health in 2019 by the World Health Organisation.
But what is vaccination hesitancy and why do parents support it? Here’s everything you need to know.
Alamy Vaccination hesitancy and vaccination misinformation has been spreading on social media in recent years
What is an anti-vaxxer?
An anti-vaxxer is someone who either refuses to be vaccinated or allow their children to be vaccinated.
Since the pioneering work of Edward Jenner in the late 18th century on developing vaccines for smallpox, people have protested against the treatment for a variety of reasons.
Public debate around vaccine hesitancy has previously included issues relating to the safety of the treatment.
And ethical objections have been made on civil liberties grounds against mandatory vaccination programmes.
But anti-vaccination as an ideology is seen as contradicting the overwhelming medical and scientific consensus and has historically led to deaths from outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.
Where has the modern movement come from?
One of the biggest causes of anti-vaccination sentiment in the UK in recent years came from a 1998 article written by Andrew Wakefield.
Wakefield claimed to have found a link between the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism, sparking widespread hesitancy about the vaccine.
Although the study was retracted in 2010 and Wakefield was struck off the UK medical register a year later, the article was described as “the most damaging medical of the last 100 years” for the hesitancy it triggered.
Even influential figures like Robert De Niro and Donald Trump have publicly repeated their belief of a dangerous link between vaccinations and developmental diseases, including autism, despite the lack of evidence.
Another reason anti-vaccination attitudes have spread in recent times is the prevalence of scientific myths shared unscrupulously on social media.
The current Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock has specifically sought new legislation to make social media companies remove content spreading misinformation about vaccines.
Facebook, which owns Instagram, told the BBC: “We are working to tackle vaccine misinformation… by reducing its distribution and providing people with authoritative information on the topic.”
How serious is the threat from anti-vaxxers?
While anti-vaxxers are very much in the minority, some public health authorities are becoming increasingly concerned about the effects of vaccination hesitancy.
On March 27 2019, parts of the US declared a state of emergency over an ongoing measles outbreak in which cops warned anti-vaxxers they could face court.
Cases of measles have also hit an eight-year high in Europe, which some researchers blamed in part on Russian trolls pushing anti-vaccination misinformation.
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But according to WHO vaccine expert Katrine Habersaat, misinformation is just one reason vaccinations have dropped in Europe.
She said: “What we do know is that there is an element of echo chambers in this.
“We may never know for sure, but I hope there will be more studies exploring this so we know how much we should fear or work against negative misinformation online.”
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