Guest bloggers: Brittany Seymour and Rebekah Getman
The recent challenges surrounding childhood vaccinations in the United States have received notable attention in both popular and scientific press, illustrating a spectrum of parental concerns and resultant attitudes ranging from vaccine hesitancy to outright refusal. The current measles outbreak traced to Disneyland has contributed to the highest number of US measles cases in fifteen years and resulted in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s release of an official CDC Health Advisory in January this year. Over half of the individuals who have come down with the illness are unvaccinated; of those, more than 80% are old enough to receive the MMR vaccine but have not, leading many states to reevaluate their personal belief exemption policies. Unsurprisingly, this now multi-state outbreak has reignited the emotional debate over vaccine safety, efficacy, and policy in mainstream and social media. While vaccinations are likely one of the most prominent health debates in the United States right now, health officials are increasingly battling unfounded controversy regarding several of public health’s greatest achievements. The field that is tasked with controlling global disease epidemics is now up against what have been dubbed “digital pandemics:” the far-reaching, rapid spread of unrestricted, scientifically inaccurate health information across the Internet through social networks.
Researchers at Harvard University recently studied this phenomenon over another common public health intervention: community water fluoridation. A lobby to end fluoridation pushes on in communities across America, despite more than 3,000 studies confirming its safety and benefits. The researchers’ findings indicate that, similar to the anti-vaccination community, a small but vocal and very tightly knit network is driving the anti-fluoridation lobby. A well-known social theory describes individuals in the world as connected by six degrees of separation, and Facebook’s one billion users are four degrees separated; the study found that individuals in the anti-fluoride community are separated by a mere two degrees. Often, highly connected networks develop a strict set of norms and values, and any person or information in violation of those norms, such as scientifically accurate pro-fluoride information, will be quickly rejected, making rational discourse nearly impossible. The researchers also traced online social conversations about fluoride through the network. Members of the anti-fluoride network frequently shared and cited scientific studies to back their arguments; however, in more than two-thirds of conversations, the actual study cited was buried two or three links away from the online discussion, or was not reachable at all. This is concerning because, under these circumstances, the risk of evidence becoming misrepresented or misinterpreted likely increases with each link that takes readers further away from the source.
The researchers’ findings support the theory that highly connected social networks, and not science or evidence, are driving digital pandemics of health information on openly accessible Internet sites. In the digital information age, scientific fact is only one piece of the complex health decision-making process. When capable, intelligent parents encounter the sea of voices online while researching how to make optimal decisions for their children’s health, of course they become concerned with what surfaces to the top of their Google search. The Harvard study suggests that perhaps we need to stop blaming parents for choosing not to vaccinate their children or for lobbying to end fluoridation in their communities, an approach that only alienates parents with questions and shuts down dialogue. Moreover, corrective scientific information inserted into existing social communities without respect for norms and values, even if in response to misinformation, runs the risk of insulting those not readily convinced solely by the prevailing science, an ultimately detrimental approach. Rather, additional research is needed to discover new, social health communication strategies that are more inclusive and acknowledge social networks’ differing belief systems. Digital pandemics are a part of our current, connected reality. Rather than fight against this trend (which may prove impossible), public health communication approaches must empower and partner with parents so that the voices of expertise, evidence, and experience are the ones they trust, and share within their networks, once again.
Rebekah Getman is the Senior Program Manager for Education at the Harvard Global Health Institute, tasked with creating and implementing multi-disciplinary curriculum for students that supplements their in-classroom learning. These curricula combine global health knowledge with other disciplines to provide students with a broad lens through which to study and assess global health interventions.
Brittany Seymour is an Assistant Professor of Oral Health Policy and Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine’s Department of Oral Health Policy and Epidemiology and the Inaugural Harvard Global Health Institute Fellow. Her research includes interdisciplinary global health curriculum development and pedagogy, capacity strengthening for oral health delivery systems in resource-challenged regions, and digital information transfer and impacts on health.