Summary: Despite the fact papers continue to expose the misinformation linking vaccinations to autism, many people still believe there is a correlation between the two. Researchers found many people get misinformed advice from online resources with negative stances on vaccinations. While using search engines to find negative vaccine advice is common, researchers believe monitoring search results could be useful in identifying people and countries at greatest risk of vaccine misinformation.
Research at Brighton and Sussex Medical School (BSMS) has found that information available online can provide unreliable information based on old, ‘weak’ scientific studies. The study ‘Fake news or weak science?’ is published in open-access journal Frontiers in Immunology.
Researchers carried out a search for ‘vaccines autism’ and then analysed the results for the top 200 websites. They found that people can get misinformed advice and information from the Internet, with 10%-24% of the websites analysed having a negative stance on vaccines (20% in the UK). Although searching on Google.com did not return such a website in the first 10 websites generated, searching on the UK and Australian versions of Google did.
Professor Pietro Ghezzi, Chair in Experimental Medicine at BSMS, who led the research, said: “This study reveals a pollution of the health information available to the public with misinformation that can potentially impact on public health. It also shows that weak scientific studies can have a detrimental impact on the public.”
Some vaccine-negative websites also ranked highly in the Italian, French, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese and Arabic versions of the search engine. The way in which Google ranks websites in different languages could be a factor, but it could also be because these websites are visited more often in some countries, which would increase their ranking and the likelihood of people using them as a source of information.
Although vaccines are one of the most effective defenses against some infections, many vaccines are still viewed negatively by a minority of parents. A major cause of negativity that surrounds vaccination uptake came from a 1998 publication by Dr Andrew Wakefield, a former British doctor who falsely linked the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine to autism. The paper eventually was retracted by the co-authors and The Lancet, where the study was published. Despite this, the idea that vaccines can cause autism is still around, and parents continue to be exposed to this misinformation.
Professor Ghezzi added: “The approach of using Google search results to monitor the information available could be a useful tool for identifying countries at greater risk of misinformation. Public health organisations should be aware of the information people can find online when designing vaccination campaigns.”
This was a collaborative study that involved researchers and universities in the UK, Australia, Brazil, Belgium and Singapore.
Source: Emma Duncan – Frontiers
Publisher: Organized by NeuroscienceNews.com.
Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Open access research for “Fake News or Weak Science? Visibility and Characterization of Antivaccine Webpages Returned by Google in Different Languages and Countries” by Nadia Arif, Majed Al-Jefri, Isabella Harb Bizzi, Gianni Boitano Perano, Michel Goldman, Inam Haq, Kee Leng Chua, Manuela Mengozzi, Marie Neunez, Helen Smith and imagePietro Ghezzi in Frontiers in Immunology. Published June 5 2018
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The 1998 Lancet paper by Wakefield et al., despite subsequent retraction and evidence indicating no causal link between vaccinations and autism, triggered significant parental concern. The aim of this study was to analyze the online information available on this topic. Using localized versions of Google, we searched “autism vaccine” in English, French, Italian, Portuguese, Mandarin, and Arabic and analyzed 200 websites for each search engine result page (SERP). A common feature was the newsworthiness of the topic, with news outlets representing 25–50% of the SERP, followed by unaffiliated websites (blogs, social media) that represented 27–41% and included most of the vaccine-negative websites. Between 12 and 24% of websites had a negative stance on vaccines, while most websites were pro-vaccine (43–70%). However, their ranking by Google varied. While in Google.com, the first vaccine-negative website was the 43rd in the SERP, there was one vaccine-negative webpage in the top 10 websites in both the British and Australian localized versions and in French and two in Italian, Portuguese, and Mandarin, suggesting that the information quality algorithm used by Google may work better in English. Many webpages mentioned celebrities in the context of the link between vaccines and autism, with Donald Trump most frequently. Few websites (1–5%) promoted complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) but 50–100% of these were also vaccine-negative suggesting that CAM users are more exposed to vaccine-negative information. This analysis highlights the need for monitoring the web for information impacting on vaccine uptake.