Deliberate disinformation is behind a massive measles outbreak in Washington

Facebook has been facing calls to crack down on anti-vax groups.

FILE PICTURE: Nurse Lydia Fulton prepares to administer the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. (Photo by Courtney Perry/For the Washington Post)
FILE PICTURE: Nurse Lydia Fulton prepares to administer the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. (Photo by Courtney Perry/For the Washington Post)

A large measles outbreak in Washington state shows no sign of abating.

According to the State Department of Health, there are now at least 54 cases of the illness, all but one of which were located in Clark County, Washington, just across the river from Portland, Oregon. Directly to the south, the Oregon Health Authority has reported at least four cases. Within Clark County, the vast majority of diagnoses are of children 10 years old or younger.

Measles — an airborne virus that can lead to lung infections, brain damage, and death in the worst cases — was responsible for thousands of deaths in the U.S. each year prior to the discovery of a vaccine in 1963. Measles was declared eliminated in the U.S. in 2000, but in the last year, there has been a worldwide resurgence of the virus, with cases increasing 30 percent, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). One of the main drivers of this trend is a growing reluctance to vaccinate children, so much so that the WHO listed the anti-vaccination movement as one of its top ten threats to global health in 2019.

“The reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines…threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases,” the WHO report reads. “The reasons why people choose not to vaccinate are complex; a vaccines advisory group to WHO identified complacency, inconvenience in accessing vaccines, and lack of confidence are the key reasons for the underlying hesitancy.”


As if to further emphasize the point, Oregon Live reported that on Monday, hundreds of protesters turned out to demonstrate against a Washington State bill which would remove parents’ ability to claim personal or philosophical exemption from having their children vaccinated. Washington is currently one of 17 states to offer parents such an exemption. The current measles vaccination rate in Clark County, the epicenter of the recent outbreak, is just 78 percent, far lower than the nationwide rate of over 90 percent.

According to a 2018 study by the American Journal of Public Health, combating the problem has been made even more difficult by Russian trolls spreading disinformation on the subject. As ThinkProgress has previously documented, Kremlin-backed disinformation agents have specifically focused on wedge issues designed to divide Americans — like Black Lives Matter and immigration issues. Anti-vaccination, it seems, has also fallen into that category.

“Whereas bots that spread malware and unsolicited content disseminated antivaccine messages, Russian trolls promoted discord,” the study’s conclusion read. “Accounts masquerading as legitimate users create false equivalency, eroding public consensus on vaccination.” According to the paper, which analyzed a sample of 1.7 million tweets between July 2014 and September 2017, Russian trolls tweet about vaccines at a rate 22 times higher than the average user.

Facebook is also facing pressure to take a more active role in combatting anti-vaccination groups which have developed on its site — in a similar manner to how the site has cracked down on groups promoting the Flat Earth theory or the QAnon Conspiracy. Some of the anti-vax groups are extremely large, such as Stop Mandatory Vaccination, which has 154,000 members who are constantly fed links to other websites peddling junk science.

“Facebook should prioritize dealing with the threat to human health when falsehoods and misinformation are shared. This isn’t just self-harm, it’s community harm,” Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, spokeswoman of the American Academy of Pediatrics, told the Guardian. “If [parents] are being served up something that is not true it will likely increase their levels of anxiety and fear and potentially change their uptake of vaccines, which is dangerous.”