Fake News in Medicine – or how to get your medical degree from the internet

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A 22 year woman, pregnant for the first time, informed me at her obstetrics appointment this week that she had done “all of her research on the internet” and didn’t want any vaccines for herself or her infant because she is concerned about preservatives. I had a difficult time not asking her what preservative laden food she had eaten the day before. Another patient declined the tetanus/pertussis vaccine that is recommended at 7 months of pregnancy to provide passive immunity against whooping cough to an infant before they become fully vaccinated. This has become recommended due to periodic outbreaks of whooping cough among unvaccinated children. Her reason for declining the vaccine? “My friend told me it is a bad idea”. I spent an extra five minutes explaining why the vaccine is recommended, why contracting whooping cough as a young child can be serious and potentially deadly and that the vaccine has been proven safe in pregnancy. She continued to decline and on her way out the door informed the staff that Dr Jaeger told her that her baby might die.

In the past week in Minnesota there has been an outbreak of measles – 11 children have been affected, 10 of them were not immunized and many required hospitalization. Measles is one of the most contagious of human diseases and it is expected that more cases will be identified. Fortunately, it is very unlikely that any of these cases will be fatal as the children are otherwise healthy and were identified early in the course of the infection. All of these cases occurred in the Somali community, an immigrant population that can be distrustful of western medicine. They are a cohort that is seen as an easy target by the anti-vaccine movement, which spreads its false information via social networks and word of mouth. Studies have documented that Somali parents are more likely to believe that the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine causes autism and are more likely to refuse the vaccine than non-Somali parents.

Fake news is defined as false information or propaganda published under the guise of being authentic news. History is replete with medical snake oil remedies to cure disease. But with the widespread acceptance of the internet as a source of information – true or not – the increase in fake medical news has skyrocketed. In an attempt to research what is best for their children, parents can be susceptible to the spread of this false information. Additionally, the anti-vaccine movement is being emboldened by the current Trump administration who has appointed Robert F Kennedy Jr to a task force that purports to investigate the safety of vaccines. Mr Kennedy holds no medical degree, has done no actual research and his intent is to push forward the anti-vaccine agenda with pseudoscience that is difficult for the average American to understand. But when he has the backing of the President of the US, he is given more credibility than he deserves.

Ironically, the anti-vaccine mindset is only possible because medical research and vaccines have almost totally eradicated communicable diseases from the developed world. My patient who declined the pertussis vaccine during pregnancy has never seen a child die of whopping cough, which occurred in 1 out of 5 children in the 1920’s.  As recently as 1980, 2.8 million deaths worldwide were attributed to measles. Global measles deaths have decreased by 79% since widespread immunizations have been implemented. Do we really want to be reminded of what it feels like when you lose a child to a preventable illness?

 

 

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