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UK: Facebook under pressure to halt rise of anti-vaccination groups

12 Feb, 2019
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She added: “When a drug company puts a drug up in the formal media, they can’t tell you something false or they will be sued. So why is this different? Why is this allowed?”

As concern grows about measles outbreaks in the US, the spotlight is increasingly falling on the closed anti-vaccination Facebook groups. The Guardian gained access to some of the groups, finding them to be rife with pseudo-science.

Facebook autofill suggestions for ‘vacci’.
One group, Vitamin C & Orthomolecular Medicine for Optimal Health, tells its users that it is “not an anti-vax group”. Its leader, Katie Gironda, says: “This group needs to remain neutral on the vaccine topic.”

Gironda is listed on LinkedIn as CEO of an online business in Colorado selling high-dose vitamin C. Members of her closed group are encouraged to “shop now” – in one click they are linked directly to her firm, Revitalize Wellness.

The site sells vitamin C powder in bulk, with customers encouraged to give children aged two up to three grams a day whereas the recommended daily intake is 15mg. Twenty-four-pound bags of the powder cost $432.

Revitalize Wellness carries a disclaimer saying that its products are “not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent disease”. But in conversation with members of her closed Facebook group, Gironda gives the opposite advice.

“Vitamin C has an amazing record of fighting the same diseases vaccines were made for,” she posts.

In another entry she says: “I think the cons outweigh the pros on vaccines … Through greed they became a weapon. Until they become safe and not driven by money I would avoid all vaccines.”

Gironda is also listed as an administrator of a separate Facebook group called Vitamin C Against Vaccine Damage. She welcomes new approved members to the group with this statement: “Science and experience of mass amounts of people have proven that vaccines CAN damage the body … Vitamin C is the safest and most effective way to protect from damage for those that are mandated to be vaccinated.”

After the Guardian contacted Gironda, the status of the group Vitamin C Against Vaccine Damage was changed from closed to secret. That put it into an even more heavily shrouded category that hides the group entirely from the view of non-members by taking it out of Facebook searches.

In discussions on the closed groups, members frequently express incorrect information that is reinforced by their peers. In January a woman posted that she lived “near this big measles outbreak”. She asked fellow members: “What should I be upping for my kids to keep them better protected?”

Another member gave this advice: “Load up on vitamin A. Measles susceptibility skyrockets among people with low vitamin A.”

In December a mother in Canada wrote to one of the groups, describing herself as a “first time mom with a 6 month old daughter who is completely vax free. My daughter is sick, I’m so upset and worried. I have always felt confident in my decision to not vax but I’m worried about what she may have contacted [sic].”

A fellow member wrote back: “Baby needs a vitamin C IV.”

David Robert Grimes, a physicist who specializes in countering fake science, said vitamin C would “absolutely not” protect against measles. “Vitamin C does nothing for immunization.”

Grimes said that he had repeatedly reported anti-vaccination groups to Facebook, with no result. “Facebook has a moral responsibility to do something – this misinformation has the potential to kill children.”

The Guardian put it to Gironda that misinformation about vaccines can put children’s lives at risk and that vitamin C was not an effective alternative. In an email she said: “Revitalize Wellness maintains a neutral stance on vaccines. We make every effort to uphold that neutral stance in our Facebook group.”

She said that she was a follower of “vitamin C pioneers”, citing Dr Linus Pauling, Dr Frederick Klenner, Dr Robert F Cathcart, Dr Irwin Stone and Dr Thomas Levy. She added: “There will always be controversy on the efficacy of vitamin C.”

Measles was declared eliminated in the US authorities in 2000 thanks to the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR). But since then the fraudulent exploits of the discredited British doctor Andrew Wakefield has sown doubts in the minds of many parents about a link between MMR and autism – despite numerous studies that have debunked the connection.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has warned there are now about 100,000 American children under two years old who are completely unvaccinated – a fourfold increase on 2001.

Facebook is increasingly engaged in combatting misinformation that causes “real-world harm”. Yet despite the health risks, anti-vaccination propaganda is currently not treated as a breach of its content rules.

The Guardian asked Facebook to respond to the proliferation of vaccine misinformation on its platform, but the company did not reply.

In addition to hosting many closed anti-vaccination groups, Facebook has taken in thousands of advertising dollars from those who specifically target parents with often frightening false messages meant to undermine trust in vaccines. Stop Mandatory Vaccination promoted an ad so extreme it was censored by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

The group later told the ASA, according to the association’s account of proceedings, that it “targeted users with an interest in parenting”, with the intent to “cause parents some concern before choosing to vaccinate their children”.

Facebook also accepted advertising revenue from Vax Truther, Anti-Vaxxer, Vaccines Revealed and Michigan for Vaccine Choice, among others.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, February 12th, 2019 at 11:59 pm and is filed under Latest News.

Literature Literature archive

Roxanne Nelson 2019 Lancet Infectious Diseases Vol19 (3):248,
Owen Dyer 2019 BMJ 364:l739 doi: 10.1136/bmj.l739
Lee TH, McGlynn EA, Safran DG. 2019 JAMA 321(6):539–540. doi:10.1001/jama.2018.19186

Videos Video archive

Key figures share their perspectives on a controversy that led to the suspension of Ebola vaccine clinical trials in Ghana.

Drs. Heidi Larson and Pauline Paterson of the Vaccine Confidence Project join episode 50 of the Public Health United podcast with Nina Martin, November 2017.

Drs. Larson and Paterson join a discussion on vaccine confidence at Hong Kong University.  September, 2015.

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