As the year mark of the coronavirus pandemic comes and goes, we’re all exhausted. As medical professionals, we’ve been on the front lines since day one. We’ve fought to save lives while protecting ourselves and those around us from infection. For most of us, the past year has been unlike any other as we have lost patients, colleagues and loved ones to this deadly virus.
But we have reason to be inspired by breakthroughs in medicine that have delivered three safe, effective, government-approved vaccines to prevent the coronavirus — taking us one step closer to ending this global health crisis.
The approval and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is a monumental milestone in our fight against the pandemic, but my fellow health care professionals and I have increasingly noticed another obstacle in the path to ending the crisis that cannot be ignored.
Disinformation about the coronavirus and the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines has had an alarming impact on vaccine hesitancy in our patients — including those who are currently qualified to receive the vaccine and who are most vulnerable to its devastating symptoms.
Our patients and our communities rely on us not just to provide care when they are sick, but also to help them navigate health information. Personal care in the face of COVID-19 is complicated, even without the proliferation of disinformation.
Unfortunately, amid a global public health crisis, social media platforms have taken on the role of enabler for these anti-vaccine activists. It is heartbreaking to see high-profile individuals and organizations continue to use social media platforms to sow doubt in the public’s trust of COVID-19 and all routinely recommended vaccines.
Disinformation spreading on social media platforms has made it more difficult to ensure that our patients and communities are able to make informed decisions about their health and safety based on truth and facts from credible sources. Too often, these harmful and ill-intentioned voices drown out the credible vaccine experts and resources that provide accurate information.
That’s why we joined with over 200 of our fellow medical professionals in sending an open letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to strongly urge Facebook to fully and transparently enforce its policies to hold prominent anti-vaccine leaders accountable and stop the spread of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation. Until these policies are enforced, too many of our friends, family and patients will remain susceptible to these myths that put lives at risk and prolong the pandemic.
Given the key role social media platforms play in hosting the dissemination of anti-vaccine messages, we’re encouraged to see updates to their policies to take down vaccine disinformation. It is, at the very least, an acknowledgement from the platforms themselves that the dissemination of disinformation is a real and persistent problem. We’re eager to see continued – and stronger – enforcement as new vaccine disinformation surfaces online every day.
But words and statements are not enough. All policies and guidelines on social media platforms must be fully enforced, making sure that disproven myths and widely circulated misinformation are removed — while also ensuring that all users are still able to see and access vaccine information from credible, science-based sources.
Our patients, family and friends must be able to make well-educated, informed decisions about their health. As doctors, nurses and health care providers, it is our job to ensure all of our patients and communities are well-equipped to make the best decisions for their well-being. We have each taken an oath to do no harm. Anti-vaxxers cannot say the same.
Social media platforms must follow their words with actions. The coronavirus vaccines give us hope for a swift end to the pandemic. Stopping the spread of disinformation will ensure fewer lives are lost. We urge social media leaders to join us in putting our collective expertise to work to help bring this pandemic to an end.
Eve Switzer, M.D., FAAP, is a pediatrician at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Enid, Okla., and serves as the Oklahoma chapter president of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Jaime Friedman, M.D., FAAP, is a pediatrician at Children’s Primary Care Medical Group in San Diego, Calif.
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