The American Medical Association (AMA) has added its voice to those calling on large tech giants to combat the misinformation on vaccines on their sites.
The AMA, the country’s largest physician organization, sent a letter (PDF) Wednesday to the CEOs of six leading social media and technology companies urging them to ensure their users have access to “accurate, timely, scientifically sound information” on vaccine safety and efficacy.
The letter went to the CEOs of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Twitter and YouTube.
The AMA said while some technology companies have announced steps to combat the spread of vaccine misinformation, it was urging the leaders of all six companies to act.
“At a time when vaccine-preventable diseases, particularly measles, are reemerging in the United States and threatening communities and public health, physicians across the country are troubled by reports of antivaccine related messages and advertisements targeting parents searching for vaccine information on your platforms,” wrote James L. Madara, M.D., the AMA’s CEO and executive vice president. He said doctors are concerned the proliferation of this misinformation will further decrease vaccinations and persuade people to make medical decisions that could spread preventable diseases.
“With public health on the line and with social media serving as a leading source of information for the American people, we urge you to do your part to ensure that users have access to scientifically valid information on vaccinations, so they can make informed decisions about their families’ health,” Madara wrote, also urging the CEOs to make public their plans to ensure that users have access to accurate information on vaccines.
Tech companies have been under pressure and grappling with how to halt the spread of misinformation on their platforms.
This week Amazon removed two books available on its website claiming to offer ways to cure autism, according to USA Today. Last week, news reports indicated Amazon had pulled antivaccination documentaries from Prime Video.
Pinterest blocked all searches on its service using terms related to vaccines or vaccinations to stop the spread of misinformation on antivax posts. And Facebook said it was cracking down on false information linked to the antivax movement, USA Today said.
The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) has confirmed 228 cases of measles in 12 states so far this year, which puts the country on track to surpass previous record years.
Six outbreaks, which the agency defines as three or more cases, have occurred in New York, Washington, Texas, Illinois, and California. The CDC said the outbreaks are linked to American travelers bringing measles back into the U.S. from other countries, such as Israel and Ukraine, where large measles outbreaks are occurring.
The outbreaks have resulted in national attention and put the spotlight on the antivaccination movement.
And a dramatic case has also drawn national attention: That of a 6-year-old unvaccinated Oregon boy who contracted life-threatening tetanus in 2017 after he cut his forehead while playing outdoors on his family farm. The case was reported in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report where doctors who treated the child at the Oregon Health and Science University revealed he spent almost eight weeks in the hospital at a cost of nearly $1 million. His parents declined a second dose of DTaP vaccine, which prevents diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, and other recommended immunizations.
More than 100 doctors and nurses helped the boy survive, but not one of them had ever seen a child with the bacterial disease before. It was the first pediatric tetanus case in more than 30 years in Oregon. “It’s always hard to watch a child suffer. It is harder when we know they are suffering from something that’s preventable and obviously we do everything we can to try to avoid those situations,” Carl Eriksson, M.D., a doctor in OHSU’s pediatric intensive care unit, and one of the case study authors, told The Oregonian.
“It reminds us that vaccine-preventable illnesses are terrible diseases that are often life-threatening, and we’re not used to seeing them so when a case like this does come along it’s definitely eye-opening to a lot of people,” Eriksson said.
Earlier this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics also sent letters to the CEOs of Google, Facebook and Pinterest urging them to combat “the dangerous spread of vaccine misinformation online.”
Congressional committees in both the House and Senate have also held hearings on vaccine-preventable diseases and the ongoing measles outbreaks.
I've received official responses from @Google and @Facebook re: steps the companies will take to combat anti-vaccine misinformation.— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) March 7, 2019
The ultimate test will be if these measures reduce the spread of anti-vaccine content on their platforms, to the benefit of public health.
In its letter, the AMA said it applauds companies taking action to removed misinformation about vaccines but said it encouraged them to continue to evaluate the impact of these policies and take further steps to address the issue.
Madara pointed out that when immunization rates are high it can prevent exposure to the disease by people who cannot be vaccinated, including children too young to receive them and people with medical contraindications.
With #publichealth on the line and with social media serving as a leading source of information for the American people, tech leaders need to do their part to ensure that users have access to scientifically valid information on #vaccinations. https://t.co/zgaIXkUQU9 pic.twitter.com/Tfxbp8zkQY— AMA (@AmerMedicalAssn) March 13, 2019
“The reductions we have seen in vaccination coverage threaten to erase many years of progress as nearly eliminated and preventable diseases return, resulting in illness, disability, and death. In order to protect our communities’ health, it is important that people be aware not just that these diseases still exist and can still debilitate and kill, but that vaccines are a safe, proven way to protect against them,” he wrote.