Vaccination
Officials say that misinformation and myths about vaccines are easily spread through social media.
Image for representation.

In 1998, a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield published a study which indicated that there was a link between the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) combination vaccine and the development of autism in children. This study was later found to be false in 2011 and Andrew was ultimately removed from the UK medical register, in view of “unethical behaviour, misconduct, and dishonesty.”

However, the fears remained and continue to plague scientists who toil effortlessly to advocate for vaccines. While vaccine conspiracists have long been around, this particular “study” was used by them to promote their agendas.

‘Anti-vaxxers’ are those who are against vaccination and actively propagate for the same. The movement which has a stronghold in several western countries, has also gained traction in India. The World Health Organisation recently released a list of impending global health issues which threaten the safety of the world, with those harbouring anti-vaccine beliefs listed as a significant danger to global health safety. India is not without its groups of people protesting against vaccines, given this, what efforts and measures are officials taking to ensure that people grow to better understand the benefits of vaccines.

Officials from the state of Karnataka confirmed that at least 6 people were suspected to have contracted Kyasanur Forest Disease (KFD) or monkey fever, in early January. Subsequent investigations revealed that lack of a mandated vaccination drive resulted in the recent outbreak.

State health department authorities did confirm to TNM that had the vaccination measures been propagated as needed, the outbreak would most likely have been prevented. A mere few weeks after this, on Wednesday it came to light that one individual from the state of Kerala had been diagnosed to be positive for the same disease. This time, it was reported that though the state had attempted to conduct vaccine drives to ensure that those living in regions where the disease was known to be found, several people themselves were opposed to the vaccines.

“This isn’t the first time that something like this has happened. Earlier there were issues when the government sought to conduct vaccine drives against measles and rubella (given as a combination ‘MR’ vaccine in general), people took to protesting the event,” stated an official from the District Health Office in Wayanad.

This was in reference to the 2017 incident where a nurse was attacked by anti-vaxxers from the Malappuram region during a vaccination drive conducted for school children. Similar instances of protesting anti-vaxxers gathered at a Measles and Rubella (MR) vaccination drive in Tamil Nadu’s Trichy.

“There is false propaganda against the vaccination drive. Certain people still hold on to superstitions. But we are trying to overcome the situation by enlightening people. Besides, strong action would be taken against those creating panic among the people,” Health Minister KK Shailaja had earlier saidprior to the Malappuram vaccination drive.

Misinformation fueled by social media

 “I would say that these mobs come together as a result of some misinformation that is spread. In today’s world, it requires no cost to spread fake messages and news via social media platforms. Think of how many false messages you might be getting on WhatsApp on a daily basis,” states Tamil Nadu

Director of Public Health, Dr K Kolandaswamy, “I feel that many of these people do this for cheap popularity and nothing more. It’s a type of cult behaviour.” Kolandasamy is of the opinion that a good coverage of vaccines had been given to older generations, rendering diseases such as smallpox and polio ineffective. This has resulted in several new parents arguing that they do not need to vaccinate their children against a disease which more or less does not exist.

“That is a wrong mentality, I’ve asked so many of these people to approach their grandparents and ask about the prevalence of polio or smallpox earlier in the country. That actually proves to be an effective measure, because the older generation has seen these diseases and understands how these grew to be eradicated,” he adds.  

Dr Kolandasamy is of the strong opinion that when “birds of a feather, flock together” the incorrect information is spread quickly. Several Facebook groups, for example, have hoards of members advocating against vaccinations. On one such group, a parent chronicles how their child developed Steven Johnsons Syndrome following the administration of a DTaP vaccine (against diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus).

However, several pediatricians TNM reached out to confirmed that it cannot be determined conclusively that the vaccine was the cause for the same. “Steven Johnson syndrome is a type of allergic reaction to put it simply, anything can be the trigger, we do not know what causes it. It is incorrect to state that the child contracted the syndrome after being exposed to the vaccine,” says Dr Rakesh K, a Chennai-based pediatrician.

Such myths end up scaring people into not taking vaccines as deemed necessary by health officials, an issue which is slowly rising forward, but one that officials are working to subdue.

There have, however, been efforts by officials recently to clamp down on those spreading false information.  Dr Kolandasamy cites the example of Coimbatore man ‘Healer’ Bhaskar, an advocate of naturopathy and staunch critic of allopathic, ayurvedic and homeopathic practices. Bhaskar, who was largely outspoken about several modern medical practices including vaccination, claiming that vaccines were nothing more than a “corporate scam”, was arrested in August last year. This after members from the Indian Medical Association (IMA) raised an alarm over a workshop he was conducting in which he claimed to pregnant women that he could teach them to have “safe home births” without the use of medicines or any modern day medical help.

Another online personality known for his anti-vaccination stance, Jacob Vadakkanchery was arrested from Chambakkara in Kerala last September after he began advising people against taking preventive measures for rat fever (leptospirosis), following the Kerala floods