The government's story of falling vaccination rates isn't the full pictureby Barbara Speed / September 4, 2019 / Leave a comment
One recent morning in northwest London, a group of mothers and toddlers met up in a terraced house on a quiet road. Over fruit and biscuits, they discussed the weather, breastfeeding older children, and the fact that they all refuse to vaccinate their children. The parents are part of Arnica, which brands itself as a “natural health” group for parents concerned about mainstream medicine. Arnica has a Facebook group with 37,000 members, nearly four times what it was five years ago, and has become one of the largest organisations pushing an anti-vaccination message online.
These groups have recently grown increasingly prominent on social media—so much so that they’ve been blamed for a fall in childhood vaccination rates in the UK. After a steady rise throughout the 2000s, rates of the MMR vaccine (for Measles, Mumps and Rubella) for two-year-olds have now fallen for four successive years, and rates of most other routine childhood vaccinations also dropped in 2017-2018. A few years ago, Britain was designated “measles-free,” but it has now lost that status. In August, Boris Johnson declared that he would take on the “anti-vaxxers,” vowing to hold a conference of tech giants to establish “how they can play their part in promoting accurate information about vaccination.”
To achieve “herd immunity”—and stop a disease spreading—a certain percentage of the population must be immunised. In Britain, the NHS has a target of 95 per cent for all routine immunisations but in 2017-2018, only the six-in-one jab protecting against polio, tetanus and other diseases had more than 95 per cent coverage among children.
Like his boss, health secretary Matt Hancock has taken a hard line, saying he is “open” to making vaccines compulsory, and that groups who promote anti-vaccination messages have “blood on their hands.” Across the aisle, Labour MP Paul Sweeney said that failure to vaccinate your children should be a “criminal offence.” Social media companies have responded—Facebook announced in March that it would make these groups harder to search for, and stop promoting them in ads or recommendations. For its part, Instagram signalled it would be blocking anti-vaccination hashtags.
At first glance, the link between the rise of anti-vaxxers on social media and the fall in vaccination rates seems clear. But take a closer look at the numbers and…