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Misinformation is as infectious as disease

Following a measles outbreak earlier this year, the government of New Brunswick is proposing a bill to make child vaccination mandatory. Specifically, the bill would not allow exemptions based on religious or personal beliefs. If successful, it will be the most finite vaccination bill codified at both the provincial and federal level. It begs the question of whether Nova Scotia should follow suit.   

Currently, British Columbia and Ontario hold the strongest vaccination laws, with B.C. introducing required vaccinations in schools. Ontario, while exemptions are allowed, requires specific vaccinations for students to attend its schools. As quoted by CBC, Nova Scotia’s Education Minister Zach Churchill has already stated that vaccinations will not be made mandatory, although the government will be encouraging parents to vaccinate their children. But why not?  

The New Brunswick outbreak is not an isolated event: there has been a rise in measles outbreaks worldwide, causing disease professionals to lobby for more finite vaccination laws. Canada alone has incurred 111 cases of measles. According to a report by the World Health Organization, countries such as Greece and Albania are no longer considered “measles free.” Problems of the forgotten past are becoming issues of our modern world.  

The cause 

The drop in vaccination levels can be explicitly linked to a growing anti-vaccination movement, largely present on social media with various groups spreading their ethos on the internet. To gauge where this sentiment began, we must look at a lone source.  

In 1998, a now contested article was published in the Lancet Medical Journal. Since then, it has become the manifesto of all anti-vaccination dogma. Dr. Andrew Wakefield and 12 other professionals held that vaccines led to a host of behavioral issues and diseases, most notably autism. The article was entirely unethical. Wakefield picked out the subjects instead of a random sample; subjects who showed signs of autism before the study. In addition, it was found that the parents were in the process of a lawsuit against MMR vaccine manufacturers. At best, it was a manifestation of public fear and medical ignorance about autism. At worst, it played an inarguable role in further marginalization of people with autism. The article is open for access today, its fraudulent pages stained in bright red caps: “REDACTED.” 

While several provinces have announced they have no plans to reexamine its vaccination law, many health experts assert that there is both a federal and provincial obligation to public health — which is under threat by these preventable diseases. If the federal government were to make vaccinations mandatory, they would be playing an essential role in the future safety of its populace.  

Fear and scapegoating 

The internet is a cesspit of easily accessible information. This has significantly altered how we process and critique information. The internet allows us to feel both closer and further away from issues. Anti-vaxx memes are a perfect example of how detached we can get from real issues. Measles and polio are not a joke. Autism stigma and dead children are not a joke. It is too easy for us to read anti-vaxx posts, laugh, argue for a bit then move on.  

Misinformation is as infectious as disease. Concerning the Wakefield article, it was reported that the rate of vaccines dropped significantly after its publication. An intense, unshakeable mistrust was developed against healthcare professionals and vaccines. Necessary funding for autism research was allocated to test Wakefield’s assertion. Misinformation feeds off fear and scapegoating in which autism bore the brunt. Numerous families across America wanted a scapegoat — and Wakefield’s fraudulent paper exploited this. Public and medical understanding of autism is nearly nonexistent. This lack of awareness has allowed us to paint folks with autism as walking symptoms and not people.  

A long-running debate 

Anti-vaccination vs. pro-vaccination has been a long-running debate. Debating and political fighting detaches us from the real issue that unvaccinated children and those with autism cannot detach themselves from. They are the victims; those who exist burdened by stigma and misinformation. When we allow public health to become a political battle, we distance ourselves from the real issue. Both the government and its citizens should strive to be informed — not just to be right. The health of a province cannot be swayed by beliefs, stigma and misinformation. Rather than being a subversion of rights, constituents should see the bill for what it can be: comprehensive policy that places the health of its populace first.  

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Mayowa Oluwasanmi

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