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Vaccine rates drop as health misinformation spreads via social media

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Kathryn Carley

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(New Hampshire News Connection) Public health experts say the rapid spread of health misinformation online is contributing to a dangerous decline in vaccination rates.

Surveys show the percentage of Americans who believe vaccines are unsafe has nearly doubled since 2021 as social media users falsely claim approved vaccines cause autism, cancer or infertility.

Monica Wang, associate professor of community health at Boston University, said falsehoods spread faster than the truth, with damaging results.

"This health misinformation spread can erode trust in health care systems," Wang pointed out. "It can lead to people delaying when they go to a doctor to seek help."

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Wang noted social media algorithms are keeping users in so-called "information silos," unexposed to

credible health sources or even contradictory views. She stressed without robust regulation of misinformation content, individuals are left to discern what is true. 

Studies show misinformation regarding the COVID-19 vaccine has cost the U.S. up to $300 million a day in health care and economic losses since 2021. It has also contributed to an estimated 300,000 preventable deaths of unvaccinated individuals.

With COVID-19 cases increasing, Wang emphasized scientists can also use social media to create health content and regain the public's trust.

"We as researchers can do a better job about communicating our science," Wang contended. "That means we start communicating our results and our processes in language that's easy and accessible for everyday people to understand."

Wang added social media users should look for health information from established medical institutions and avoid content making sensational medical claims. And, she said, when in doubt, do not share information lacking scientific credentials.