Over 230 measles cases were reported in the UK in the first quarter of the year.

UK Prime Minister urges social media giants to limit spread of vaccine misinformation

By Leontina Postelnicu
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Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called on social media companies to take action against the spread of misleading claims about vaccines as figures show more than 230 cases of measles were reported in the UK in the first three months of the year.

Measles can be prevented by having the MMR vaccine, given in two doses through the NHS childhood vaccination programme, but the UK has seen a decrease in coverage in recent years, and has now lost its “measles-free” status with the World Health Organisation.

Today, the PM announced a suite of measures to improve vaccination uptake, which will see social media giants be invited to a summit to identify how they can limit the spread of inaccurate information.

The advice given on the NHS.uk website will also be updated and the NHS will strengthen the role of healthcare professionals promoting vaccines with “hard-to-reach” families and “under-vaccinated” communities.

A new strategy will be published later this year to tackle the issue. The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) said it would look at using technology able to identify those that might have missed vaccinations and streamline booking of appointments.

WHY IT MATTERS

According to the WHO, measles vaccinations prevented an estimated 21.1 million deaths from 2000 to 2017. But globally, in 2017, around 110,000 people died from measles.

In Europe, figures from the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention show that over 44,000 cases were reported by 30 EU/ EEA states from the beginning of 2016 until the end of March this year.  

THE LARGER TREND

While there are many reasons behind the decline in vaccination uptake, experts have warned that social media companies need to do more to tackle the misinformation shared on their platforms.

In January, a study from the Royal Society for Public Health, a London-headquartered charity, found that two in five UK parents with children under the age of 18 said they “often or sometimes” saw negative messages about vaccines on social media. That figure rose to one in two in parents with children under five.

ON THE RECORD

Commenting on the plan from the DHSC, NHS England and Public Health England expected later this year, Matt Hancock, health and social care secretary, said:

“It’s easy to forget how devastating measles can be precisely because vaccines are so effective at preventing it in the first place. With this strategy, the whole health system will come together to renew focus on vaccinations – especially for our children – and this time we will eliminate measles for good.”

Shirley Cramer CBE, chief executive of the RSPH, added in a statement: “The loss of our ‘measles-free’ status is a huge blow to the significant progress that has been made in preventing this potentially fatal disease. Uptake for the MMR vaccine has persistently been below the 95% target over the last few years, and if this doesn’t change, we can absolutely expect to see a further rise in cases of this serious illness.

“Catch-up programmes for those who have missed out, as well as targeting communities that have been hardest to reach, are important steps the Government must take. It’s clear also that the social media giants have a part to play in curbing the spread of vaccine misinformation online.”