Ask an Activist: How Can I Combat Vaccine Misinformation?

Author: Jackie Marchildon

Courtesy of Thomas Breuer

Why Global Citizens Should Care
Vaccine hesitancy poses a real threat to the achievement of Global Goal 3: good health and well-being for all, and the anti-vaccine movement is a difficult one to combat. Vaccine advocates like Thomas Breuer provide vital information about the efficiency and importance of vaccines. You can learn more about global health here and take action here.

An estimated 2 to 3 million deaths are prevented every year thanks to immunization efforts around the world. Still, the anti-vaccine movement continues to gain momentum, and misinformation is becoming easier to access online.

We're asking Global Citizens via our Facebook group what questions they want answered, and one big question we know they've had in the past is what they, as individuals, can do to combat this kind of misinformation.

Thomas Breuer, chief medical officer of GSK Vaccines, recently penned an op-ed for the World Economic Forum entitled, "Why we need to start a new pro-vaccine movement."

The key takeaway? By starting a pro-vaccine movement, perhaps we can put an end to the anti-vaccine one.

“Currently we are using vaccine hesitancy and the anti-vax movement in one sentence,” Breuer told Global Citizen. “But for me, there’s actually a difference.”

He explained that someone who is hesitant might have questions or doubts and could be lacking in information. It won’t do any good to marginalize or attack them, he says. If you have access to information that they don’t have, share it — through a friendly conversation.

“I would estimate that at least 80% to 90% of people are simply looking for information. And even if they have misinformation, they are open to being course corrected,” he said.

Image: Courtesy of Thomas Breuer

And that is an important distinction. The anti-vax movement is problematic, but it’s not likely as large scale as it appears. Most people are open to vaccines, Breuer says — it’s just that the anti-vaxxer voices are especially loud.

“On the side of industry, government, and others in public health, we need to continue doing our part to provide answers that are easy to find, easy to understand, and that really address the questions that are out there,” he said.

The spark that caused the fire that is the anti-vax movement was a claim by the now discredited doctor Andrew Wakefield that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine caused autism. 

Researchers have never been able to replicate his research. But the match was lit as soon as his findings were published, and pro-vaccine advocates have been fighting to dispel this misinformation ever since — even before the internet came into play.

Nowadays, information can go viral on social media within minutes. The term “fake news” is thrown around on the daily, and it can be hard for people to distinguish between what is accurate and what isn’t.

And this isn’t a new threat.

A 2013 World Economic Forum report warned that “digital wildfires” could cause the “viral spread” of misleading information that could result in a variety of global risks.

The anti-vax movement has been blamed for the measles outbreaks that have popped up around the world over the last two years, and the World Health Organization (WHO) even listed vaccine hesitancy as a top 10 global health threat for 2019.

Breuer outlined three key steps to join the pro-vaccine movement and help stop vaccine misinformation in its tracks.

“Step one: Take some time to become familiar with the wealth of vaccine information that is being provided by the WHO, the CDC, and many other public health organizations,” he said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is an American health protection agency that provides information on vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases. As an international public health agency, the WHO also lays out to information on topics like vaccination programs around the world. Global Citizen campaigns on health and frequently publishes articles and explainers on issues like global immunization efforts, and you can take action now by asking world leaders to commit funding to vaccines.

“Step two: When you encounter someone who is vaccine hesitant, remember that there is nothing wrong with having questions," Breuer said. "Their questions could be the result of exposure to emotional and compelling misinformation. Take the time to learn more about why they are hesitant and help guide them to accurate information … Encourage them to talk to a medical professional should they have any concerns remaining.”

And step three?

“Repeat step one and two,” Breuer said.

"Ask an Activist" is a new series that aims to answer frequently asked questions on topics related to Global Citizen's core issues and campaign areas. The series features activists working in global health, environment, gender equality, and more. You can join us in taking action here. Have a question for an activist? Join our Facebook group here to submit your question.