While “fake news” has been dominating news cycles ever since US President Donald Trump took office, one the consequences of the dangerous phenomenon is becoming clear: it could lead to a global disease epidemic.
The spread of misinformation — “fake news”— could ultimately trigger a massive disease outbreak, just as the anti-vax sentiment has done by pushing against scientific evidence.
The theory comes from a Wired article citing a 2013 World Economic Forum report that warns against “digital wildfires” that could cause the "viral spread" of intentionally or unintentionally misleading information that could result in a variety of global risks.
The report makes reference to an event in 1938 when thousands of Americans mistook a radio adaptation of the novel “The War of the Worlds” to be a news broadcast. Naturally, panic ensued as people thought aliens were invaded the US.
The report then says because social media allows information — true or not — to travel around the world in seconds, it poses a similar risk.
“Imagine a real-world example of shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre. In a virtual equivalent, damage can be done by rapid spread of misinformation even when correct information follows quickly,” the report reads.
For global health, this means that as false information spreads through social media about health innovations like vaccines — as the world has seen with the dangerous anti-vaxxer movement — people may opt out of scientifically proven measures of health safety, putting large populations unnecessarily at risk.
The anti-vax movement perpetuates ideas that go against scientific evidence, which scares parents and encourages them not to vaccinate their children. Unvaccinated children become sick and are a perfect starting point for an epidemic.
“If vaccination rates fall it is relatively easy for infectious diseases to re-establish themselves, especially the highly contagious ones like measles and diphtheria,” Sarah Loving, vaccine knowledge project manager, Oxford Vaccine Group, told the Independent.
The UK experienced a measles outbreak in 2012 and 2013 caused by a drop in MMR vaccination rates in the early 2000s, she said.
Measles outbreaks have been also been reported across Canada, into the United States and throughout Europe in recent years, as were cases of mumps and whooping cough.
If the anti-vax trend continues, 2018 and beyond could see a resurgence of deadly diseases close to eradication, according to Wired.
Thanks to a polio vaccine, the number of annual cases has decreased from 350,000 in 1988, to just 22 in 2017. While polio is on the brink of eradication, it remains endemic in three countries still: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.
While infectious diseases like polio remain a threat to a child anywhere, they are a threat to children everywhere.
All it would take is for an unvaccinated person to come into contact with the virus.
Global Citizens campaigns on issues related to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, including issues related to health and epidemics. You can take action here.