The extent to which rumours about the safety of vaccines can impact the number of children vaccinated was witnessed in Tamil Nadu during the measles-rubella vaccination drive last month. Only about 50% of 17.6 million children between nine months and 15 years age in the State were vaccinated at the end of the campaign period on February 28. The campaign had to be extended for 15 days to cover over 95% of the target population. Though the slip in vaccination coverage due to rumour is unprecedented for the State, patently wrong, misleading, unbalanced information about vaccine safety has been a menace across the world for many years now.
While Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 infamous paper in The Lancet on measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine that sparked the fear of vaccine-induced autism in children was retracted in 2010 and several studies have shown the safety of the vaccine, misapprehension and doubts about the vaccine safety still persists. Measles outbreaks in the UK in 2008 and 2009 and small measles outbreaks in the U.S and Canada have been attributed to the nonvaccination of children as a result of unfounded fear.
As is the norm today, parents and care givers often turn to Internet for information about vaccine safety. Chances are that many people inadvertently land on websites that contain wrong and alarmingly wrong, misleading information about vaccines and their safety. With such websites mushrooming on a daily basis, the World Health Organisation had launched the Vaccine Safety Net to provide doctors, parents and others access to “accurate and trustworthy information about vaccines”.
What is Vaccine Safety Net?
Launched in 2003, the Vaccine Safety Net is a global network of vaccine safety websites, evaluated by the WHO. Currently, the network has 47 member websites in 12 languages. According to the WHO, more than 173 million users every month access VSN websites. Websites are subjected to severe vetting by the Vaccine Safety Net before become approved to become a member. For instance, websites are required to contain correct, unbiased information about vaccine safety and have no links with the industry to become a member.
According to the WHO, efforts are on to include social media channels as well. “The network is currently piloting the process for reviewing Facebook pages to help get trustworthy vaccine safety messages to more diverse audiences,” WHO says.
The Indian Academy of Pediatrics’ Advisory Committee on Vaccines and Immunisation Practices (ACVIP) is one of the members of the network. “We became a member in August 2016,” says Dr. Vipin Vashishtha who is the webmaster of the site. “In the month of February alone there have been nearly 2,35,000 visits to the ACVIP website.”
How useful is the information?
At a time when President Donald Trump has raised the bogey of vaccine-induced autism through several tweets, the Institute for Vaccine Safety, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which is a member of network, has posted an article last month explaining why vaccines do not cause autism. One of Trump’s tweets reads: “Healthy young child goes to doctor, gets pumped with massive shot of many vaccines, doesn’t feel good and changes — Autish. Many such cases!” To a concerned parent that many vaccines given together as a combination vaccine, as in the case of MMR, is the cause of autism and other safety issues, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a member of the network, in an explainer says: “Scientific data show that getting several vaccines at the same time does not cause any chronic health problems.”
In January this year, the ACVIP had sent out a letter to its nearly 24,000 members (who are paediatricians) and also posted it on the website explaining the basics of the measles-rubella vaccine campaign. Unfortunately, no information was made available on the website to counter the rumours about the MR vaccine. “We are in the process of uploading video messages to the website about the MR combination vaccine and its safety,” says Dr. Vashishtha.