More needs to be done to stop the spread of vaccine misinformation


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By Beth Kennedy
Editor-in-chief

27 Sep 2019

Pharmacists can take initiative and proactively educate patients about the importance of getting protected against preventable diseases, says The Pharmacist’s editor-in-chief Beth Kennedy

Ten years ago, diseases such as measles and mumps seemed like relics of the past; unpleasant and often deadly afflictions that may have affected previous generations but never our own, and certainly no one we knew personally.

But now it seems like news of the increasing cases of these entirely preventable diseases are becoming almost a weekly occurrence. How is it possible in 2019 that there were 328 admissions for measles in England alone in the 2018/19 – up a whopping 66% on the previous year? Perhaps even more shockingly, there were 2,028 cases of mumps in England in the second quarter of 2019, the ‘highest quarterly’ data since 2009, according to Public Health England.

The rise in confirmed cases seems to correlate with falling numbers of childhood vaccinations. Yesterday (26 September), The Pharmacist reported that coverage across all childhood immunisations had fallen in the past year. Markedly, (MMR) vaccine coverage by the age of five was at 86% in 2018/19, representing a decline of one percentage point from the previous year.

Clearly, the effects of Andrew Wakefield’s disgraced 1998 Lancet paper claiming a correlation between autism and the MMR vaccine still occupies a space in the public’s consciousness 20 years after it was published. In June, experts warned that although vaccine confidence is higher in the UK than the rest of Europe, it is still in a ‘vulnerable’ position due to social media amplifying parents’ anxieties and mistrust. In an attempt to stem the tide of vaccine misinformation circulating online, social media giants Facebook and Youtube announced earlier this year that they would take measures to tackle vaccine misinformation on their platforms. But the falling rate of vaccinations seems to prove that this is still not enough.

Something has got to change. For although so-called anti-vaxxers may claim that the decision to vaccinate their children or not is a personal one, that simply isn’t the case. For children too young to get their own vaccinations or other patients whose immune systems are compromised, coming into contact with someone who has not been immunised could have disastrous consequences. Parents refusing to vaccinate their children on the basis of unverified information (falsely) claiming that vaccines are unsafe is dangerous, and it cannot continue.

It seems that the Government agrees. Last month, the Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on healthcare teams to urgently increase the uptake of the MMR vaccination to 95% across the UK. While pharmacists can do their bit by offering an MMR jab service in their businesses, there are other ways in which they can work to debunk vaccine misinformation. For example, holding talks at local parents’ groups or pre-schools could have the doubly positive effect of educating parents about the relative safety of vaccinations while encouraging more footfall into the pharmacy for vaccination services.

This may seem like just another burden to heap onto pharmacy’s ever-expanding pile. But the importance of bringing vaccination coverage back up to 95% cannot be downplayed. Now is the time for pharmacists to use their unparalleled access to local communities by talking to parents and gently assuaging any concerns they may have about vaccinations. If all else fails, consider taking to social media to beat those spreading vaccine myths at their own game.

I hate to put pressure on pharmacists to take the lead on pushing for higher rates of immunisation when this is clearly a job that should fall to the powers that be. But as much as the Government is giving it the gab about raising vaccine rates, recent political events would suggest that it is far better at talking about what it wants to achieve rather than actually getting it done. As the old saying goes, if you want something done, do it yourself.


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