Congressional Hearings on Vaccine-Preventable Disease Outbreaks and Anti-Vaccine Sentiment

March 4, 2019 Rene F. Najera

Two weeks ago, Representative Adam Schiff sent a letter to Facebook and Google asking for more action on anti-vaccine misinformation being shared through their platforms. In response, Facebook pledged to alter their algorithms so that anti-vaccine information was not immediately shown when searching for information on vaccines. For its part, Google announced that anti-vaccine videos on YouTube — it’s video-hosting service — would not be able to make money from advertising. That eliminated a significant source of revenue for many individuals and organizations who seem to make a living from spreading misinformation about vaccines. Yet another social media platform, Pinterest, blocked all searches for vaccine-related terms on its site. Pinterest users can still post misinformation, but it is harder for the general public to find it.


The House Committee on Energy and Commerce held hearings last week on the current resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States. The hearings were eclipsed in the media by the hearings held to question the former personal attorney to President Trump. However, those hearing were still interesting to watch. Dr. Tony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), testified about the risks and benefits of the Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. He testified that, yes, vaccines like the MMR do have side effects, and, in very rare instances, those side effects could be severe. However, he added that the side effects from the vaccine were not near as common nor as severe as anti-vaccine organizations make them out to be.


Next up are hearings by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions this week. Among those in the list of witnesses is Ethan Lindenberger. Mr. Lindernberger made news recently for reaching out to social media and asking for help in getting immunized after finding out that he was not fully immunized. He received advice and received the necessary immunizations to get caught up. Since then, he has become an advocate for critical thinking about vaccines among his peers (children of anti-vaccine parents).


It remains to be seen what kind of actions the Federal Government can take to reduce the volume of anti-vaccine misinformation given the strong history of protections of many kinds of speech. But there is precedent to the government blocking speech when there is a compelling interest. It also remains to be seen what the Federal Government can do to improve immunization rates at the local level, since mandating and enforcing immunization requirements is an authority given to the states. Just about the only power the Federal Government would have is the power of the purse. That is, it could tie money for programs to immunization rate goals for the states.


As some have pointed out, 2019 is looking a lot like a watershed year for immunization policy in the United States. The outbreaks of measles in under-vaccinated populations have really stirred things up in public opinion and policy discussions. What kinds of actions will be taken, and by which government agencies, is up in the air. But it seems like we’re in for some change when it comes to how the discussion around the safety and effectiveness of vaccines goes.

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