Tuesday, Apr 23, 2019
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When fake news becomes a global threat

The World Health Organization (WHO) reported on Monday that reported measles cases rose 300 percent in the first three months of 2019 as compared to the same period in 2018.

The WHO said many countries are dealing with sizeable outbreaks. These include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Myanmar, Philippines, Sudan, Thailand and Ukraine. The outbreaks are causing deaths – mainly among young children.

Measles is highly contagious. In 2017, according to the WHO, it was estimated to have caused close to 110,000 deaths.

Measles can be easily prevented by a simple vaccine. However, there is a vibrant global anti-vaccination movement that spreads misinformation, discouraging use of the vaccine. Citing debunked so-called science, they say the vaccine causes autism. That is not true. However, their fake news is widespread across the internet and social media. It has convinced many not to vaccinate their children.

Here in The Bahamas, where vaccines are mandatory, it is estimated that 15,000 children need to be vaccinated. This year we had our first two measles cases since 1997 from a visiting child and sibling.

Along with causing death, measles suffers could face serious complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis (swelling of the brain). Some of these children are left deaf or with intellectual disabilities.

In free speech societies the digital age presents a remarkable problem. Billions of people possess smartphones and have the ability to create multi-media content. They can share messages instantly that spread out to billions of others. By what means do states control the spread of reckless, dangerous information?

The anti-vaccination movement is a threat to human health. The invention of the vaccine, for a host of infectious diseases, was one of the major factors contributing to the growth of human populations and the expansion of life expectancy in most countries in the 20th century.

While it is reasonable to discuss issues such as the proper storage of vaccines, ensuring they are not expired and the schedule in which they should be administered, there is no reputable science proving that vaccines are dangerous. Yet, these irresponsible voices are helping bring measles back through their misinformation.

The WHO says to date, in 2019, 170 countries reported 112,163 measles cases. At the same time last year there were 28,124 cases from 163 countries.

“The WHO African region has recorded a 700% increase, the Region of the Americas 60%, the European region 300%, the Eastern Mediterranean 100%, with 40% increases in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific,” said the WHO.

In the digital age states must reckon further with the boundary between permissible speech and that which is not and ultimately must be criminalized. Lies, obvious distortions and deliberate falsehoods that lead to deaths should not just be accepted as protected under the banner of freedom of speech.

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