Why lies spread, and what we can do about it

Oh man, a lot has happened since I went to Washington DC and testified in front of congress.

Even just today as of March 22nd, GoFundMe announced they were taking down anti-vaccine campaigns.

Facebook recently announced changes to anti-vaccine post as well.

And even Amazon removing books pedaling misinformation about vaccines and autism.

Now the one I found most interesting was this story surrounding Italy “banning unvaccinated kids from school.” Once I heard the news, I immediately started drafting this blog post but got caught up in other pursuits and the vast detail within this story/issue.

So let’s get into it, and discuss what's been happening!

You may have seen within the last week or so that the Italian government has taken action to stop the spread of preventable diseases within their public schools. As the media has been reporting the new developments, people have taken the false assumption that Italy has banned unvaccinated kids from attending public school. Even the BBC claimed, “Italy bans unvaccinated children from school,” which is still inaccurate to the actual events which have transpired.

The idea that unvaccinated school children are being “banned” from attending public is true to a small margin but is still exaggerated. Any young students 6 years old and younger can be turned away from public schools if they haven’t received their necessary vaccines. Any children that are older than 6 years old simply receive a fine of around $500 for sending their unvaccinated children to school.

“Tech times” even reported that more than 300 kindergartners have been turned away in Bologna, Italy already. And this is just one city impacted by a law which has a national reach. This is important to understand, as the law is effective in some ways, but may still not go far enough to stop Italy's past issues with anti-vaccine misinformation and preventable disease.

So as we dive into this issue, there are a few points I want to hit on and discuss. A few details about Italy's past with the anti-vaxx movement, and if this law should be a stepping stone for other countries like the U.S to follow in.

Part 1: Court Confusion

The anti-vaxx movement has been around ever since the 18th century. Protest were held more than a hundred years ago, claiming children were being massacred by vaccines. This of course is not limited to the United States, though some would think that because of a lack of exposure.

Italy has had a long history of legislation and issues when it comes to fighting anti-vaxx misinformation and ideas. The effectiveness and safety of vaccines has been proven time and time again, but despite this the proof hasn’t seemed to resonate with the Italian government and nation to some capacity. Even in late 2018, about 6 months ago, the Italian government was contemplating doing the opposite of the actions which have been taken and raise the age parents could delay vaccines. Time magazine detailed how, “The law was introduced last year under the Democratic Party government during an outbreak of measles that saw the number of cases in Italy hit 5,004 in 2017 – up from 870 the year before. That gave Italy the second highest number of measles cases in Europe”

This issue of combating the spread of preventable disease was not made an simpler by the 2012 court case in which a mother sued the Italian government, claiming her son had autism which was caused by the MMR vaccine. Valentino Bocca became the center of a debate between truth and science, with his parents under the misguided crusade against the truth. Their son did not have autism due to the MMR vaccine, as even recent studies continue to show the MMR vaccine does not cause autism. In fact, The Daily Mail which reported on this story back in 2012 even said, “The Bocca family...turned to Comilva [An anti-vaxx lobbying group] for advice on compensation after they were finally told that their son had autism when he was five years old.”

This is important to understand, as Italy had a court case where a family was claiming their son had autism from the MMR vaccine and gained national attention because of it. The ensuing distrust in vaccines made efforts to stop the spread of diseases like Measles much harder.

Now, the U.S department of health and human services say most children are diagnosed with autism soon after birth or around the time they turn 3. But with autism being a spectrum disorder, this late identification which took place with the Bocca family happens more often than you’d think.

The court decision was eventually overturned, seeing that the evidence was substantial against the families claims. Despite this, the case gaining a national spotlight instilled distrust all throughout Italy and causing a massive problem for the next 7 years, leading up to this recent crackdown on anti-vaxx children going to public schools.

Knowing this, and seeing the history of Italy's battle against dangerous misinformation, the government's crackdowns and “bans” on unvaccinated kids makes a lot more sense.

And no, it doesn’t infringe on rights either. Leading us into part two.

Part 2: My body, my measles

Italy's story shows how important proper information is, and how stories like the Bocca family can lead to massive problems which need legislative solutions. To understand what the United States can do and what we as a nation can learn from Italy, we need to analyze the root of the anti-vaccines movement and their claims.

Part of addressing any arguments regarding vaccines needs to be focused on the foundations of misinformation. The foundation of an argument, and the belief it stems from, is going to be fundamental to address false beliefs. And one such root of the ideology anti-vaccine individuals have is this concept of vaccinations being “my body and my choice.”

You see this everywhere, anti-vaccine groups base their entire platforms on “respecting your right to choose,” and that mandates or force infringe on this inherit choice. Part of this is respectable and comes from a genuine sense of fear. However this claim that “you have the right to refuse vaccines and if you want to get vaccinated, nobody is stopping you,” is a loaded one that needs to be understood.

First, the idea that anti-vaxxers respect your right to choose has been shown to be inherently misguided. Because of a mentality that people who receive vaccinations are sheep, often accused of being in league with “big pharma,” any claim to respect is immediately lost. You see this most certainly happen with the anti-vaccine movement far more often because of a sense of identity gathered in communities of other conspiracy theorist and anti-vaxxers. This community and identity creates what is known as an “echo chamber,” which is a situation in which people only hear opinions of one type, or opinions that are similar to their own.

Echo chambers and a sense of identity make it much easier to harass and be rude to people who disagree with your beliefs (as well with a sense of anonymity online), as people that disagree with you have become the minority and the villain within your small bubble of people who hold these same beliefs. CNN even reported that anti-vaxxers will attack parents and harass them after their children die to diseases like the flu if they advocate for vaccines; something that could have saved their children's lives.

This happens due to social media sites linking and discussing these deaths and individuals, calling for harassment and negativity regardless of circumstances. So again, this concept that anti-vaxxers “respect your right to choose” has had a history demonstrating the opposite.

And even beyond that, claiming you have the right to choose whether or not you vaccinate is a claim which disregards the complications of vaccines. Measures such as removing exemptions are also demonized, because they take away this inherent right to choose. But why would the government allow the public environments they facilitate to be placed at a higher risk for the contraction and outbreaks of preventable diseases?

Think about it like this, your immune system is a fighter, a warrior meant to fight off foreign bacteria, viruses, and infections. Those nasty invaders are attacked, and once defeated, the body learns to defend against the disease if presented again. That’s basic science that even anti-vaxxers understand. Much like a real warrior, the first fight teaches lessons in strategy and further methods of defense against an opponent that help tremendously if a second battle occurs.

But with vaccines, this happens on a small scale, where your body learns how to fight a weak form of the disease that can be applied if reintroduced to the same combatant. If you have this immunity and resistance, you have a much larger chance to avoid spreading the disease to other people. That just makes sense, if less people have the flu for instance, less people will contract the flu overall from those people that otherwise may have spread influenza. This is called “herd immunity.”

Your “choice” not to vaccinate places other people at risk. If I choose not to vaccinate and give a 3 year old the flu they could die. That child had no choice in the matter, and that's why vaccines are so important.

This is also why arguments of choice are inherently misleading, appealing to an idea that pro-vaccine movements and efforts are trying to take away your rights and freedoms. This isn’t the case at all, as people are simply protecting the entire population and the vulnerable from diseases which should otherwise be forgotten to history.

Part 3: what can we do about this?

With stories like Italy taking measures to protect their schools and social media/internet platforms such as Facebook, Pinterest, GoFundMe, and Amazon attempting to stop the spread of misinformation, change is possible. These changes can stop people like the ones in my own family and countless others from believing lies about vaccines. Taking away the opportunity of profit from these platforms built off the graves of children lost to these diseases is also important.

And the most important thing you can do? Keep an eye on legislation and bills being proposed, try and contact your representatives to voice concerns for established systems that spread lies or allow people to be put at risk to these diseases.

In Ohio, house bill 132 was proposed and is undergoing changes and further discussion. What is house bill 132 you may ask?

It’s a bill seeking to make changes to public school systems (most of which are academic, financial, and technological guidelines) that includes this segment;

Sec. 3313.675. (A) As used in this section, "school" means an elementary or high school for which the state board of education prescribes minimum standards pursuant to section 3301.07 of the Revised Code. (B) When a school, board of education, or governing authority of a school notifies a pupil or the pupil's parent or guardian of the immunization requirements described in section 3313.671 of the Revised Code, the school, board, or governing authority also shall notify the pupil, parent, or guardian of the exemptions from immunization described in that section. The school, board, or governing authority shall provide notice of the exemptions in the same manner as it provides notice of the requirements.

See any issues there? Although on paper this proposal seems harmless and logical. In its essence, house Bill 132 seeks to create a false legitimacy of the choice to exempt from immunization requirements. If this bill sought to truly be fair and genuine, the exemptions would be presented by alongside the same type of warning something like a pack of cigarettes would contain. “Here are the vaccine requirements, and here are the exemptions. You should also be aware exemptions from vaccines may put your child an other children at risk to contract and facilitate the outbreak of preventable diseases.”

If house bill 132 were to find itself under serious consideration, this could cause massive issues. Again, attributed to a false legitimacy when exemptions are proposed “in the same manner.” A doctor would never present exemptions from surgery and the surgery itself in the same manner, the only difference in this case being vaccinations can save other individuals lives as well.

Most Ohio citizens don’t know about this, and if your representatives are approached with a bill like house bill 132, will they be aware of your concerns if you stay silent?

Speak up in opposition of movements like this and legislation if you see the same issues I do.

But most of all, get vaccinated. Protect the health and safety of yourself and other people.

That’s still the best thing we can all do to protect our communities.