Vaccine hesitancy is a key reason for this worrying trend. Europe is the most vaccine-hesitant region in the world, and we are now witnessing the results. Last year’s wide-ranging survey of vaccine confidence in Europe, led by Heidi Larson and her colleagues from the Vaccine Confidence Project, found that the picture in the EU is complex with varying levels of vaccine confidence between countries. Alarmingly, they found that in some countries, including the Czech Republic and Slovakia, at least a quarter of GPs did not agree that the MMR vaccine was safe. Furthermore, low confidence among GPs is correlated with low confidence among the general public.
Of course, in most countries, the vast majority of the population receive all – or at least most – of the vaccines recommended for them. Problems arise, however, when a small minority choose to refuse or delay vaccination, bringing the community’s levels below the threshold needed for herd immunity and leaving them open to an outbreak.
The role of social media
At the core of social media is the ability for us to share ideas and content with our peers. While this freedom of information is what makes social media so appealing, it is also what can make it dangerous. Social media is not the cause of vaccine hesitancy, but it has certainly played a role in making anti-vaccination arguments and pseudoscience accessible to a wider audience.
Recent announcements from Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, among others, point to change. Facebook is down-ranking anti-vax content in its search results and rejecting anti-vax adverts. Instagram will not show or recommend content with misinformation about vaccinations, while YouTube has removed adverts from channels which promote anti-vax content.
These changes are encouraging, but are they enough? None of these sites are removing the harmful content, just making it more difficult to find. Furthermore, given that there seems to be some correlation between political populism and vaccine refusal, at least in some countries, might the changes implemented by social media companies play into the hands of the most vocal anti-vaxxers, providing them with the opportunity to point to censorship of their freedom of speech and to deepen their mistrust of the mainstream?