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The epidemic of myth: How false information about vaccines spread

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Scientific study shows that false information spreads faster than true information. According to an article in Science Magazine, “it took the truth about six times as long as falsehood to reach 1,500 people.” 

The beliefs of the anti-vaccination movement are exemplary of this phenomena.

In 1998, British doctor Andrew Wakefield published a research article on a well-known medical journal The Lancet. The study incorrectly suggested that measles, mumps, and rubella vaccinations cause children to develop health problems such as intestinal abnormalities and autism. Soon, anti-vaccination movements spread rapidly and widely. 

According to recent news reports, such movements trigger a sharp decrease in vaccination  which have caused multiple measles outbreaks worldwide range. In May, there were eight confirmed measles cases in Seattle, including one infant.

Wakefield's study was later proven false. Additionally, there was evidence that suggested Wakefield had financial gain from faking the experimental result. However, false information still obscures confidence in vaccination. 

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasizes that vaccination prevents people from fatal diseases such as polio and measles, nowadays, only 72% of people in the United States who believe vaccination is safe.

Physician Mariann Carle at Hall Health points out several explanations for people’s doubts in vaccination. 

“People are concerned about what they put into their bodies,” Carle said. “They are afraid of the government and the big factories are lying to them [about the consequences of vaccination]. They think companies make profits from the vaccines;Andrew Wakefield fueled these thoughts.”

According to Carle and the scientific community, all of these assumptions are completely false. Carle mentions that vaccination is a well-studied topic in the field of medicine, and it is very rare to get severe side effects from vaccinations. People have a much greater chance to get vaccine-preventable diseases if they choose to avoid this small risk. 

Carle explained that because not many people are trained in the professional medical field and cannot distinguish between good and bad research, they are extremely vulnerable to false information. They have a very strong belief in deciding what to do with their bodies and can be ignorant of beneficial suggestions from experts.

Clinic nurse manager Ruth Silue at Hall Health brought up another factor that contributes to myths surrounding vaccinations: People don’t have a full understanding of how severe diseases can be. Since vaccination has prevented these diseases for a long time, the danger of diseases has become vague in people’s minds. 

“Because we were doing so well with vaccinating, we were not seeing actual diseases anymore,” Silue said. “There has been a loss of history of what those diseases can do to the body. People lose the fact that [vaccination] is an important thing; I witnessed people dying because of vaccine-preventable diseases.” 

When talking about why people spread misinformation about vaccinations, Silue considers the reason a fundamental lack of belief in science. 

“They consider information on social media more reliable than actual scientific studies,” Silue said. 

Yunkang Yang, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of communication, studies how false information spreads in political circles. According to Yang, psychological factors play a big role in the spread of false information on social media. 

“[False information] can be very sensational,” Yang said. “Sometimes false information confirms [people’s] imagination of the world. It taps into their deepest fear, anger, and anxiety. People love to see exciting stories so they are willing to share this information.” 

Yang explained people tend to believe myths on social media from people who have a close relationship with them. While social media serves as a platform for the public to share thoughts and feelings, it also provides a convenient method for false information to spread.

To avoid spreading and absorbing false information, Yang recommended carefully checking the source. Since information producers often have clear agendas, people can easily be manipulated if they believe in information with dubious sources. 

Critical thinking skills are also a great tool to help people to identify falsehoods and make their judgment on the information. 

In the case of vaccination, Carle and Silue suggest students weigh the costs and benefits of getting vaccinated so that they can make educated decisions.

Hall Health provides opportunities to answer questions and explain the scientific facts behind vaccination. Students are strongly encouraged to get vaccinated and share knowledge with families and friends. More information can be found on their website.

Reach reporter Sunny Wang at science@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @sunnyqwang64

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