In Senate Hearing on Anti-Vaccine Crisis, All Fingers Point to Social Media

The "sources that spread misinformation" should be our primary cause of concern.

On Tuesday, politicians, public health experts, and a teenager raised at the center of the anti-vaccine movement gathered in Washington, D.C., to discuss the future of vaccines in America. Their combined testimony before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions made one thing clear: Outbreaks of preventable diseases in the United States are too pressing to ignore.

The senate hearing came less than a week after another congressional hearing discussing the ongoing measles outbreak in Washington state — which now has 70 confirmed cases. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also tracked outbreaks in New York, Illinois, and Texas — all of which can be traced to individuals who never received the MMR vaccine, which protects against the disease.

In Tuesday’s hearing, experts provided testimony suggesting that the government can — and should — take action to help promote more acceptance of vaccines and stem the influence of anti-vaccine messages that allow these outbreaks to take hold.

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A resurgence in measles cases amongst anti-vaccine communities has prompted the federal government to consider new ways to approach vaccine information and policy. 

Addressing “Internet Fraudsters”

In his opening statements at the hearing, Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee set the tone with an assertion that became a theme across the various testimonies: Social media spreads misinformation, creating more “vaccine hesitancy” among parents.

“Internet fraudsters that claim that vaccines are not safe are preying on the unfounded fears and daily struggles of parents, and they’re creating a public health hazard that is entirely preventable,” Alexander said.

Already, social media sites are being forced to reevaluate what types information they allow to spread on their platforms. Facebook is facing pressure to remove anti-vaccination groups. YouTube has demonetized anti-vaccine videos, and Pinterest actually curbs search results regarding vaccines. If you search ‘vaccines’ on Pinterest, there are no search results.

In his testimony before the committee, Ethan Lindenberger, a senior at Norwalk High School in Ohio who recently got vaccinated after his mother refused to vaccinate him as a child, echoed concerns that social media sites promote the consistently debunked idea that vaccines cause autism. “These sources that spread misinformation should be the primary source of concern for the American people,” he said.

In the wake of Lindenberger’s testimony, John Wiesman, Ph.D., Washington State’s secretary of health, called for the CDC to spearhead a nationwide campaign for vaccination. This program, he said, would be intended to combat the anti-vaccine messages that spread through social media.

Increasing Funding of Vaccine Programs

In his testimony, Wiesman also argued that the government should refocus on funding vaccine programs. For instance, he noted that funding for the Section 317 Immunization Program — a program that allows the government to purchase vaccines for the uninsured, for vulnerable populations, or during public health crises — has “flatlined” for ten years. He also called for a 22-percent increase in the CDC’s budget by 2022, which could help implement new programs and address shortcomings.

On top of these proposals, Saad Omer, Ph.D., a professor of epidemiology and pediatrics at Emory University, added that the federal government should consider policies that make vaccine counseling reimbursable for physicians. This, he explained, would make it more financially feasible for doctors to take the time to explain the benefits of vaccines to parents who may have concerns:

“Physicians don’t have the time to properly counsel patients using evidence-based approaches,” Omer said. “Physicians lose money on this important public health education.”

“Harmonizing” Vaccine Policy

Dr. Jonathan A. McCullers, the pediatrician-in-chief at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Tennessee, asked the committee to pursue more consistent public health policies regarding vaccines.

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Cullers argued that the federal government should consider more consistent policies regarding vaccines. His hospital sits near the borders of three states, which all have slightly different vaccine policies. 

McCullers’ hospital sits near the borders of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee — three states with very different vaccine policies. Arkansas and Tennessee allow for religious and personal exemptions to vaccines, whereas Mississippi banned religious and personal belief exemptions. He explained that when hospitals sit near states that have different vaccine policies, it can undermine states that have taken action to remove exemptions to vaccines and increase their vaccine coverage.

“I urge the committee to consider solutions that both will harmonize public health policy in these regions, and protect children as they grow up to become the next generation,” Cullers said.

“The Federal Government is Key to our Success.”

Though the three themes outlined by the witnesses discussed slightly different ways to stop the spread of preventable diseases, they all called upon the federal government to at least consider some action on that front — which could represent a change in the way that the US approaches vaccine policy and anti-vaccination movements. In the past, vaccination policy has been left up to the states, though recently FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb has implied that if states don’t crack down on non-medical exemption and anti-vaccine movements they may “force the hand of federal health agencies.”

Wiesman, for one, believes that action from the federal government is crucial and will be key to preventing crises like the measles outbreak in Washington state in the future.

“I’m here in Washington, D.C., because the most essential part of public health — preventive health, making sure people stay safe and healthy and avoiding outbreaks — needs a champion,” he told Inverse ahead of the hearing. “I’m sharing some of the challenges in our state because the federal government is key to our success.”

In the testimony on Tuesday, the experts gave the Committee actionable advice that they could use to combat the anti-vaccine movements, and more importantly, preventable disease outbreaks. The only remaining question is whether senators will act upon that advice.