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New Campaign Fights Vaccine Disinformation

photo of infodemic vaccine disinformation

Feb. 3, 2021 -- As health care providers work against the clock to administer as many COVID-19 vaccine doses as soon as possible, logistics aren’t the only thing standing in their way.

Misinformation -- which has hampered the nation’s coronavirus response -- is now hurting vaccination efforts, too.

About 1 in 5 Americans say they won’t take a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor. Even a third of health care workers have voiced their hesitance.

The spread of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation creates “a really powerful parallel pandemic to the real pandemic,” Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, told NPR. The center has tracked the links between vaccine misinformation and vaccine hesitancy during the past year.

The “infodemic” is essentially “working in concert to really undermine our capacity to contain COVID,” Ahmed said.

To help combat vaccine misinformation and address lingering concerns that people have, corporate, nonprofit, and media leaders, including WebMD and Medscape, are joining a public service campaign called VaxFacts. Led by HealthGuard, the goal of the campaign is to provide facts and tools to help consumers make informed decisions about vaccines.

Steven Brill, co-CEO of HealthGuard, said credible information that comes from trusted messengers is critical to counter vaccine hesitancy.

“There’s traditionally a lot of skepticism about vaccines. That has really ramped up in the last few years based on campaigns about the measles vaccine …. And now you have the COVID vaccine, which by everybody’s understanding has been “rushed,” Brill, said during an interview on Coronavirus in Context, a video series hosted by John Whyte, MD, chief medical officer for WebMD.

“There may be less understanding of the nature of what rushed really means. It’s still gone through the clinical trials it needs to go through.”

HealthGuard is a browser extension that flags health hoaxes, provides credibility ratings for hundreds of websites, and guides users to sources that offer trusted information. The tool is a new service from NewsGuard, which veteran journalists Brill and co-CEO Gordon Crovitz created in 2018 to combat misinformation in the news. HealthGuard, which is free for users globally through June, is specifically aimed at informing readers about health myths related to vaccines and COVID-19. It will cost $35 per year after that.

The HealthGuard Coronavirus Tracking Center has flagged nearly 400 websites for publishing misinformation about the coronavirus, including several top myths about COVID-19 vaccines:

  • The mRNA vaccines can alter human DNA.
  • Vaccines will use microchip surveillance technology.
  • COVID-19 vaccines cause infertility.
  • The vaccine developed by Oxford University will turn people into monkeys.
  • COVID-19 vaccines contain aborted human fetal tissue.

As partners, WebMD and Medscape will feature continuing coverage of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, including articles and videos.

There will be other efforts this year. Google has launched a $3 million fund to back fact-checking organizations to counter vaccine misinformation, and social media platforms are monitoring posts that actively promote disinformation around vaccines.

The U.S. has distributed nearly 50 million vaccine doses, and states have administered more than 32 million of them, including 5.9 million second doses in the two-shot vaccines, according to the latest CDC update.

To reach herd immunity, about 75% to 85% of Americans will need to receive a vaccine, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in December.

Vaccine skepticism has increased in recent years, which has led to a decline in vaccination rates and the highest annual number of measles cases in the U.S. in more than 25 years, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2019, the World Health Organization named vaccine hesitancy as one of 10 threats to global health.

With the COVID-19 vaccines in particular, people have voiced concerns about their safety and how well they work, given their accelerated development, according to Kaiser’s poll. They’re also worried about potential side effects, the perceived role of politics in the development process, and a lack of trust in government. Others don’t trust vaccines in general or believe they may contract COVID-19 from a vaccine, the Kaiser poll found, “suggesting that messages combatting particular types of misinformation may be especially important for increasing vaccine confidence.”

WebMD Health News

Sources

Kaiser Family Foundation: “KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor: January 2020.”

Google: “COVID-19 Vaccine Counter-Misinformation Open Fund.”

CDC: “COVID-19 Vaccinations in the United States.”

The New York Times: “How Much Herd Immunity Is Enough?”

Pew Research Center: “More Americans now see ‘very high’ preventive health benefits from measles vaccine.”

NPR: “‘The Perfect Storm’: How Vaccine Misinformation Spread To The Mainstream.”

World Health Organization: “Ten threats to global health in 2019.”

Kaiser Family Foundation: "KFF COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor: January 2021."

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