Online Conspiracy Theories May Derail Zika Vaccine Efforts

Misinformation and conspiracy theories posted on Twitter could undermine efforts to deliver a Zika virus vaccine, researchers are warning.

A team from Johns Hopkins, George Washington University, and the University of Georgia analyzed thousands of messages on Twitter and found pseudoscientific assertions and claims of devious plots that they say could cause vulnerable people to refuse Zika vaccinations when they do become available.

False claims seen on Twitter include assertions that Zika-linked brain defects in newborns are really the result of existing vaccines for other diseases, but that drug companies are blaming Zika to open a market for a new vaccine. Another theory spread on social media is that an insecticide, not Zika, is really to blame for the brain condition, called microcephaly.

Lead author Mark Dredze of Johns Hopkins University said:

“Once people have made up their minds about something, it’s hard for them to change their opinions. I’d find it surprising if this sort of [social media-disseminated] story really had no impact whatsoever, and I can’t imagine it would make people more likely to pursue a healthy response.”

He and his team encourage public health authorities to use real-time social media monitoring to track and respond quickly to unsubstantiated claims.

140,000 Zika Virus Tweets

The Zika virus is spread by mosquitos and through sexual intercourse, but most patients suffer only mild flu-like symptoms. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, says that infection of pregnant women can later result in babies born with microcephaly, with abnormally small heads and brains.

A different group of Johns Hopkins researchers led a recent emergency study identifying how the virus may be causing the birth defect.

Dredze, an assistant research professor in computer science at Johns Hopkins, has collected and analyzed social media data to monitor flu cases, mental illness trends, and other health concerns.

To investigate the scope of the Zika-related claims, he and the team monitored Twitter to identify relevant conversations as soon as they happened. They found nearly 140,000 tweets between January 1 and April 29, 2016, that contained the keywords “vaccine” and “Zika.”

Development of a Zika vaccine is in its early stages, but “there is already cause for concern regarding the success of the eventual vaccination campaign,” the research team writes in the study.

Corresponding author David Broniatowski, assistant professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at George Washington, said:

“Even though the science is relatively clear, we found many conspiracy theories that could be affecting people’s health-related decisions, such as whether to vaccinate. Unfortunately, the people most affected are from the most vulnerable communities, with little access to the facts.”

The researchers urge public health experts to address people’s concerns quickly and debunk unscientific claims to ensure a future vaccine campaign is effective.

Mark Dredze, David A. Broniatowski, Karen M. Hilyard
Zika vaccine misconceptions: A social media analysis
Vaccine; doi:10.1016/j.vaccine.2016.05.008

Image:Stephen C. Webster/Flickr