When it comes to vaccine misinformation, social media needs to be proactive in finding solutions
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In recent weeks, several digital platforms, including Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram and Amazon, have finally announced plans to crack down on anti-vaccination content and ads from their sites. This follows mounting pressure and concern regarding the role that digital and social media has played in undermining confidence in vaccines by enabling the dissemination of misinformation about their safety on an unprecedented scale. And this is not an abstract concern; misinformation about vaccines puts children’s lives at risk.  So, while taking action against this kind of content is an important and encouraging step, it does not go far enough.

Is it enough just to end a practice that has contributed to the rise of the anti-vaccine movement, which has been followed by a significant reduction in vaccination rates in the United States, and resulted in outbreaks of dangerous diseases with communities declaring public health emergencies? Or should digital media be expected to be part of the solution by promoting factual public service information that encourages positive public health outcomes?

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For decades TV, radio, and newspapers have played an important role in doing precisely this by supporting public health and safety campaigns aimed at encouraging anything from ‘buckling-up for safety’ in cars to ‘saying no’ to drugs. Given the enormous reach and influence of digital and social media platforms, and the fact they have profited from placement of this harmful content, they should go beyond just blocking misinformation and replace it with affirmative evidence-based information to encourage caregivers about the importance of vaccinating children.

To be clear, this is not about taking political sides in an ideological debate. When it comes to vaccine safety there is no debate; the science is unequivocal and leaves no room for doubt. This is about ensuring that people who go looking for information about vaccinations and vaccine safety are given fact-based information, rather than misleading propaganda from a small but vocal minority who are ideologically opposed to vaccines and have no interest in scientific evidence.

That people hold such views should come as no surprise and is not new. Over a century ago, anti-vaccine campaigners used similar tactics to scare well-meaning parents who were concerned about the health of their children into refusing to vaccinate them against smallpox. Given that the eradication of smallpox through vaccination is now hailed as one of medicine’s greatest achievements, this may now seem absurd. Even so, it is important not to underestimate the impact that fearmongering can have and how easily it can undermine public confidence.

Today, this is more the case than ever before. The growth of the internet, and the power that social media yields, has made it considerably easier for anti-vaccine campaigners to spread misinformation compared to the days of handing out pamphlets on street corners. What’s more, while the scientific evidence supporting the safety of vaccines in preventing deadly diseases is considerable and conclusive, anti-vaccine misinformation is having a more powerful reach through digital media.

That’s partly because vaccines are a victim of their own success; they have been so effective at eliminating diseases that we have stopped fearing them. Before a measles vaccine was developed in 1963 there were between 3-4 million cases in the United States every year, resulting in 48,000 hospitalizations and as many as 500 deaths. Those who survived faced possible permanent blindness or brain damage.

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Sadly, in many parts of the world, mainly poorer countries, people still see the devastating impact of these diseases every day. But thankfully, because of vaccines, such horrors are still a rarity in the United States. As medical doctors we have both witnessed this, but much of this is lost on an increasing number of people, because we now have generations of parents and health professionals who grew up never having seen measles first-hand. It’s not that they have forgotten how bad measles can be and how important vaccines are, it is that they are fortunate enough to have never known them to begin with.

This makes it all the more important that the medical and health community improves the way it engages parents. Digital and social media organizations can and should help us, not just because they can help to educate and advise parents in the U.S, but also those in poor countries whose children are even more vulnerable. With digital media, we can be smarter and actually target potentially hesitant parents by replacing misinformation with fact-based and affirmative content about the power of vaccines and the need to get vaccinated.

This is not about taking sides in a debate, or a topic in which reasonable minds can disagree. This is not about one point of view versus another; it is about fact versus myth. The safety and efficacy of vaccines is a scientifically settled fact. Any suggestion otherwise is simply myth and denial, which can expose countless people around the world to sickness, misery and death. That is why social media should always give preference to fact, and why it needs to be proactive in replacing anti-vaccine content with scientifically validatedpro-vaccine messages.

Ami Bera, M.D., represents California’s 7th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Seth Berkley, M.D., is CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.