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SINGH: We must take steps to fight false anti-vaccination information

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Ethan Lindenberger was 18 when he denied his parents’ wishes and got himself vaccinated. He lives in Ohio, which is 1 of 17 states that allow for parents and guardians to opt out of vaccination medications for philosophical purposes. Lindenberger’s parents refused any sort of vaccination for him and his four younger siblings because they believed in vaccination conspiracies, which put the whole family at risk for contracting easily preventable illnesses. 

In the meantime, Lindenberger began doing his own research through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and used Reddit for advice on how to get vaccinated. Using this information, he received the standard vaccinations including hepatitis A, hepatitis B, influenza and HPV. His mother was not pleased with his decision, and said it was extremely disrespectful. 

But since Lindenberger was at the legal age of 18, there was not much she can do about the situation. That being said, Lindenberger’s story brings to light the anti-vaccination movement that has surprisingly caught more traction in recent times. 

Two to 3 million lives worldwide are saved annually from vaccinations, said Simon Stevens, head of England's National Health Service (NHS). But anti-vaxxers have been harnessing social media more intensely than before, thus spreading their conspiracy theories that are categorized under fake news. "Last year, for example, we saw more than triple the number of measles cases across England than we had seen the year before despite the fact that clearly, vaccination works," Stevens said.

Instead of educating themselves through scientific research, statistics and proven facts, people are merely depending on whatever they see on the internet. It is so important for people to take everything they see with a grain of salt. The anti-vaxxers are plaguing social media applications such as WhatsApp, YouTube and Instagram with misinformation about vaccine usage, even though such theories have been disproven repeatedly through extensive research and results produced by the medical community. 

Still, the fraction of children vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella in England has fallen for four years straight. "In 2017, Britain was declared free of endemic measles, with just 259 lab-confirmed cases. But last year saw 913 confirmed cases of this potentially fatal yet entirely preventable disease — a three-fold increase. This has been exacerbated by myths propagated largely online," Stevens said.

Our own country has been affected by vaccination conspiracy theories as well. There is currently a measles epidemic in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. As mentioned before, there are 17 states that allow parents to opt out of vaccinations for moral reasons. Two of these states, Washington and Oregon, are now experiencing an outbreak. 

The only way we can overcome this problem is by educating the ignorant. More people need to know the facts, more people need to conduct their own research and more people need access to reliable content. Technology companies play a major role in data distribution, and thus they will play the most crucial role in eradicating fake news. 

YouTube has taken steps to aid this cause, and as of last week the company has taken down commercials that foster anti-vaccination ideologies. Amazon has recently been under fire for offering anti-vaccination content on its website. If a search of “vaccine” is done, the website yields a page that is dominated by anti-vaccination content, even going as far as offering free anti-vaccination movies for its Prime members. Ultimately, this all only encourages the false beliefs behind vaccination, as many may assume that a massive multi-billion-dollar corporation like Amazon endorses the content it sells. 

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) is one of the biggest advocators in voicing the harm that technology companies cause by promoting anti-vaccination. "The algorithms which power social media platforms as well as Amazon's recommendations are not designed to distinguish quality information from misinformation or misleading information, and as a result harmful anti-vaccine messages have been able to thrive and spread. Every online platform, including Amazon, must act responsibly and ensure that they do not contribute to this growing public health catastrophe," he said.

Change is being made and progress is evident, but the process is too slow. Considering how far we have gotten technologically, there should be no reason for such regression to occur. Measles, mumps and rubella had no vaccination until 1971, and it has been almost half a century since then. Yes, social media plays a crucial role in the information we access, but at the end of the day, it is up to each one of us individually to challenge what we see. 

Seeing is not believing, especially when it comes to the life-or-death situations we have experienced from these outbreaks. Be proactive and find trusted sources and do your research, because your life may depend on it. 

Harleen Singh is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in cell biology and neuroscience. Her column, "Here's to Your Health,"  runs on alternate Tuesdays.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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