During the 20th century alone, the world experienced a larger gain in life expectancy than in all the previously accumulated history of humankind. This triumph has been dubbed one of the greatest achievements in global health and is largely attributed to the 20th century success of vaccines. However, a digital assault (one that began with autism but has ballooned to numerous other concerns) regarding the safety and importance of vaccines has permeated the Internet. Anti-vaccine sentiments, derived from this study – now retracted – perpetuated by celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy and Kristin Cavallari, and other concerned citizens, have gone viral. A “digital pandemic” is underway, and like a game of telephone, the truth has morphed, facts were lost in translation, and the story of vaccines today boggles the mind. Public acceptance and trust in their safety and utility has waned. Regions of the world, including the United States, are experiencing their worst disease outbreaks in nearly two generations (IOW since the invention of the associated vaccines), and many of these are attributed to exemptions from the recommended vaccine schedule. As rotavirus vaccine inventor (and recipient of death threats due to his pro-vaccine work) Paul Offit describes it, every story has a hero, victim, and villain; in this story gone viral, Jenny McCarthy is the hero, the children the victims, which leaves one role for public health experts: the villain.
More recently, is public health at the forefront of yet another digital assault, susceptible once again to the label of villain? Last month, a study with known limitations was released naming fluoride as one of six newly identified developmental toxins in children. Ironically, this followed the American Dental Association’s announcement only two weeks prior that it has changed its longstanding guidelines for the use of fluoride in young children, recommending an increase in fluoride exposure before the age of two years old, as compared to the former recommendations. Yet, within a matter of hours from the release of the study, the story of fluoride as a new threat to normal child development created a flood of posts on Twitter (just search #fluoride) and was covered in popular media news stories for CNN,USA Today, Forbes, and Time. These news sources alone generated over 54,000 views and shares over social media by the end of the weekend. Does fluoride share the same vulnerabilities as vaccines?
To many public health experts, these stories trigger bewildering thoughts. How is it possible that such misguided health information can spread so far so fast, painting public health experts as villains? Is there a way we can reverse our role in this story and emerge the heroes? Lessons learned from the vaccine story provide insights into an emerging threat of digital pandemics and the power of social media as the medium. Public health is encountering an unfamiliar menace, a rising global pandemic of rapid and unrestricted information transfer.
In today’s global society undergoing tremendous technological advances, new and emerging media modalities are greatly affecting health by influencing policy decisions, direction of philanthropic aid, and individual health behaviors. No doubt, due to the power of handheld technology and online social networking,social media and “citizen journalist”have played a role in propagating potential detriment to what is revered as one of public health’s greatest triumphs (vaccines). Thomas Patterson explains that information accuracy is becoming obscured, “The internet is at once a gold mine of solid content and a hellhole of misinformation.” As Nicco Mele illustrates, the internet makes David the new Goliath, where citizens are capitalizing on the power of social media’s velocity and reach, disarming the traditional gatekeepers of information quality.
Even when presented with corrective information, it’s no wonder the public continues to be confused, and concerned, about potential dangers of our intentional public health interventions. But what triggers a digital pandemic, and where is the threshold between an outbreak of bad health information versus a true online pandemic wrought with content persuasion? In a world of expanding voices sharing health information online through social media, how can we ensure that the cream still rises to the top and the public is making health decisions based on the most accurate information possible?These are the big “opportunity” questions we as public health experts need to be addressing under our responsibility to keep today’s citizens, their children, and our societies healthy.
Brittany Seymour is an Instructor on Global Health 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.