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Experts, Lawmakers, and One Ohio Teen Take on the Anti-Vaccine Movement

While anti-vaccine propaganda continues to spread online, experts and teens are talking about how to fight it.
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Washington State Secretary of Health John Wiesman speaks during a Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing entitled "Vaccines Save Lives: What Is Driving Preventable Disease Outbreaks?" on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on March 5th, 2019.

Washington State Secretary of Health John Wiesman speaks during a Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions hearing entitled "Vaccines Save Lives: What Is Driving Preventable Disease Outbreaks?" on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on March 5th, 2019.

Three months into 2019, four states have reported outbreaks of measles, a disease once eradicated in the United States that's resurfacing thanks to the anti-vaccine movement. Also in 2019, many groups have weighed in on how to fight back: Some of the world's biggest tech companies have promised to crack down on anti-vaccine propaganda, lawmakers have considered strengthening (or expanding) their state vaccine policies, and some of the children of anti-vaxxers have moved from Reddit forums to the congressional spotlight. Here are the key takeaways from this week's anti-vaccine news.

Tech Giants Are Still Promoting Anti-Vaccine Propaganda

For years leading up to today's outbreaks, the country's biggest social networks helped the anti-vaccine movement go viral: Platforms like Facebook and YouTube let anti-vaxxers spread mainly negative posts in closed groups and promote their content in advertising. Just weeks after Facebook promised to crack down on the posts, and Pinterest banned search terms related to vaccines, the Guardian is reporting that another tech giant played a role: On Tuesday, an investigation revealed that Amazon's charity program "appears to be helping fund anti-vaccine not-for-profit organizations." Customers can choose to donate a portion of their purchase to groups like the National Vaccine Information Center and Age of Autism through AmazonSmile.

CNN and BuzzFeed also reported this week that Amazon has removed anti-vaccine content, like the pseudoscience documentary VAXXED, from its Prime selection. Such responses, although delayed, could help eradicate misinformation online. But as Jeanine Guidry, a social media and health communication researcher, told Pacific Standard last week, "If we don't have a lot of health communication input, it becomes even more of an echo chamber."

The Teens Want Vaccines

As Pacific Standard has reported, the children of anti-vaxxers have taken to Reddit to ask for advice on getting vaccinated without their parent's consent:

Since the age of medical consent is usually 18, many unvaccinated minors have been driven to extremes. Danny briefly considered forging his parent's signature on a vaccine information statement. Another teenager told me they were considering telling a counselor that their parents had lied on their religious exemption form, which anti-vaxxers use as a work-around.

One of these teens—18-year-old Ohio high school student Ethan Lindenberger, whose story went viral after it was first reported in Undark—testified before Congress on Tuesday. In explaining his choice to get vaccinated without parental consent, Lindenberger pointed to Facebook pages that he said influenced his mother's anti-vaxxer views. "I bring this up to show how in my own personal life this misinformation reached my family," he said. "Not only that, it led to the people I care about being put at risk." In 2018, he began catching up on his immunizations for diseases like measles and polio.

Most teens in Lindenberger's position have to wait until they're 18: State laws governing minor consent change depending on your status or the services, but, overall, there are few legal protections for minors seeking to get vaccinated without a parent. Lax vaccine policies have further exacerbated this problem: Lindenberger's home state of Ohio allows parents to exempt their children from mandatory vaccines for both personal and religious reasons. "Anti-vaccine leaders and proponents of misinformation which knowingly lie to the American people are the real issue," he said, according to the Hill.

Calls for a Nationwide Campaign

At the same hearing where Lindenberger told a Senate committee his story, Washington State Secretary of Health John Wiesman called for a nationwide campaign to combat the anti-vaccine movement, similar to those targeting tobacco, the Washington Post reports. In Washington State, the number of measles cases has risen to 71. Vaccination rates are already up in response to the crisis, and lawmakers are considering bills to ban non-medical exemptions.

U.S. vaccine policy varies widely at the state level; states like West Virginia, which has never allowed non-medical exemptions and thus maintains a high vaccination rate, fare better than Washington, where a vocal anti-vaccine movement has compromised herd immunity. Wiesman believes that increased prevention efforts at the federal level could help, starting with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "We are constantly reacting to crises rather than working to prevent them," he said in his testimony on Tuesday, according to CNN. "We have lost much ground. Urgent action is necessary."

Urgent action requires more funding, however—and public health has not been a priority for the Trump administration so far; the 2018 budget proposed cuts to the CDC.