Fake News Kills – 29 Deaths from Measles in Europe Last Year

Measles is back in Europe. More than 8,000 cases were reported in 2018. Twenty-nine people died after catching the disease, which until recently was all but eradicated through childhood immunisation. Social media companies are blamed for amplifying scare stories by anti-vaccination campaigners – the so-called “anti-vaxxers”.

Italy has banned non-vaccinated children from attending school and threatens non-compliant parents with fines.

The current measles outbreak coincides with a drop in the rate of vaccinations. According to the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC), based in Stockholm, most countries fail to meet the required standard of 95% full vaccinations. That provides “herd immunity”. It makes it most unlikely that anyone would catch or transmit a disease and protects vulnerable groups such as very young babies who cannot be vaccinated. Only Hungary, Slovakia, Portugal and Sweden have achieved this.

ECDC spokesperson Niklas Bergstrand comments: ”It is unacceptable that children and adults in EU countries die from complications of vaccine-preventable diseases… If the goal of eliminating measles in Europe is to be reached, vaccination coverage needs to increase in a number of countries.“

The ECDC has not tried to curb false news. Instead it provides Train the Trainers courses to address “vaccine hesitancy”. US public health officials are more proactive. The CEO of the American Medical Association James L. Madara has written to all internet platforms, urging them to change the algorithms that amplify anti-vaxxer content.

Crowdfunding platform GoFundMe responded positively to a similar request. Dublin-based owner Rob Solomon has removed all appeals from anti-vaccinationists. Now, if you type “anti-vax” into the search box, GoFundMe offers the opposite: people raising money to vaccinate teenagers whose parents refused when they were babies, and a pro-vaccine man who is denouncing anti-vaxxers on tour across the United States.

In an editorial in Science journal urging a task force to tackle vaccine hesitancy, Heidi J.Larson and William S. Schulz call for more emotion and fewer dry statistics in pro-vaccine messages.

A rare example of this is the open letter by children’s author Roald Dahl his seven year old daughter Olivia who had measles.

“One morning, when she was well on the road to recovery, I was sitting on her bed showing her how to fashion little animals out of coloured pipe-cleaners, and when it came to her turn to make one herself, I noticed that her fingers and her mind were not working together and she couldn’t do anything.

“Are you feeling all right?” I asked her.

“I feel all sleepy,” she said.

In an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead.“

Dahl’s appeal to parents to immunise their children still circulates on social media. But only people who are already convinced are likely to see it, because of the filter bubble effect: the networks automatically provide more of what we like and approve.

Fake news and “hesitancy” are not the only causes of the current measles epidemic. Experts at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s Confidence in Vaccines Project reckon it may have its roots in the war in Ukraine. Faulty Russian vaccines, and the civil conflict which interrupted vaccination programmes played a part. Power outages meant the refrigeration that keeps the vaccine fresh may not have maintained the correct temperature. Close proximity to Ukraine might also explain the high incidence of measles in neighbouring Poland and Romania.

Israel also has a measles epidemic and Orthodox Jewish visitors to New York City have been blamed for spreading it. So fake news spawned an evil twin: anti-semitic hate speech.

Europe’s own anti-vaxxers are less strident. The European Forum for Vaccine Vigilance says it is pro-choice, and warns that newly-vaccinated people pose a risk of infection, since they carry small doses of a live virus. EFVV’s Sally Fallon Morell advocates “Health officials should require a two-week quarantine of all children and adults who receive vaccinations to prevent transmission of infectious diseases.”

Official ECDC statistics do not include Germany but the Robert Koch Institute says they are lagging behind the rest of Europe. Cinemas in some German cities recently screened the 90-minute film Vaxxed, made by disgraced British doctor Andrew Wakefield. His 1998 press conference claiming to have established a link between the Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and a new form of autism is believed to have affected the public perception of the triple vaccine and vaccines in general. A Sunday Times investigation by journalist Brian Deer revealed that Wakefield and his wife planned to set up a business supplying single vaccines, which he maintained were “safer” than the triple doses favoured by the medical establishment.

BBC investigative reporter Janet Trewin scrutinised the evidence before immunising her own two children. She says: ”The controversy was immense and, even for a working journalist, confusing. We were both frightened at the prospect of not vaccinating at all. Our research suggested that, if there was any problem at all to a baby, it was most likely to come from the child’s system having to handle all three at once. Consequently, we gave all the injections but with many weeks in between to allow the body to overcome the onslaught.“

Meanwhile Andrew Wakefield was struck off the General Medical Council register and banned from practising medicine in the UK. He re-located to Texas. A number of parents of autistic children worked with him on Vaxxed. The fact-checking service Snopes has investigated this and found them false.

Andrew Wakefield has allies in politics and Hollywood. Donald Trump met him on the 2016 election campaign trail and since he became President, Trump repeatedly tweets his support for separate vaccines and sympathy for parents of children with autism.

Medical studies in Denmark, Ireland and the UK have all failed to establish a causal link between MMR and autism.

However, it is an undisputed fact that some people are badly affected by vaccination, either because of a faulty vaccine, wrong dose, allergy or other misadventure.

In Europe, this was established in the European Court of Justice on 21. June 2017 by the family and lawyers of Mr J.W., an adult who contracted Multiple Sclerosis after a Hepatitis B injection and died five years later. The case had been dismissed by all the lesser courts in France. But the EJC ruled the vaccine manufacturer Sanofi Pasteur was liable in this case. The judgement makes it clear that whatever the general medical research, the cause and effect in this case are demonstrated by the short time it took after the vaccination for MS to develop, Mr J.W.’s previous good health and lack of family history of MS. This does not only count in France but throughout Europe. Yet similar cases are rare. In response to a Freedom of Information request in 2017, the UK Department of Health revealed that 759 claims had been made from 2008-2017 and 11 were successful.

Footage of vaccine-damaged children evokes enormous sympathy, whatever science says. Yet emotive disinformation needs only a small dose of fact to puncture its appeal. Europe’s award-winning anti-fake news campaign, Lie Detectors, describes the effect of its school visits, in the words of founder Juliane von Reppert Bismarck, “It’s like an immunisation. Just a short, sharp wake-up that sensitises young people and makes them question what they see.” As European Immunisation Week gets under way, the authorities are hoping for a similar effect in parents, too.