Fraudulent Scientific Study + Social Media = Perfect Storm?

My husband works in the emergency room, and one night he came home venting that a child he took care of that night was on a “special schedule” for his vaccines. Since I’m a pharmacist, he demanded to know “if there is an evidence-based ‘special schedule’ for vaccines” that I knew of, and I couldn’t think of one.

He spoke about a mother who said that she had her child on a “special vaccination schedule” with her holistic pediatrician. Respectfully, my husband inquired as to why a special schedule was necessary. The mother explained that MMR vaccines are associated with an increase risk in autism, and she was concerned about those risks. Despite my husband’s effort to assure her that this is not the case, she remained adamant.

I’m certain this kind of thing happens to physicians all the time: people who still believe that the MMR vaccine is related to autism.  In fact, one of OOMPH’s very own pediatricians, Dr. Hipolito, also touched base on this issue in his own post here.

In 1998, a fraudulent paper was published in a highly regarded medical journal, The Lancet, and sparked the controversy that the MMR vaccine was linked with autism. This article was partially retracted in 2004 and fully retracted in 2010, however, 4 years later, the damage of this misinformation perpetuates and is a constant source of frustration for many health care professionals.

Before “social media” meant Facebook, Instagram, and BuzzFeed, “social media” meant celebrities getting on soap boxes about whatever issue under the sun, and unfortunately, with great celebrity status comes great responsibility. Celebrities and their beliefs are made so accessible to all of us – they are on the news, entertainment news, a one-liner is visible on tabloids, magazines, etc. So although some celebrities speak so passionately about topics in which they are by no means an expert, the average person in the public may not have the wits to do research on their own. In our homes and cars, on TV, the radio, etc, people were saying that the MMR vaccine was linked with autism.

Celebrities, who also felt affected by the supposed link between the MMR vaccine and autism, began speaking up about their experiences. Jenny McCarthy is the prime example of someone who built a movement around this fraudulent theory in 2007, and published a book that linked the MMR vaccine with autism. Her celebrity status catapulted this theory into people’s living rooms, and people who didn’t know any better started to subscribe to her movement.

Measles was considered eliminated from the United States in 2000 – I remember this clearly being a monumental achievement, and that the US was a model country for endorsing vaccinations that led to the eradication of measles. However, post-MMR scandal, there have been about 60 cases of measles in the US each year.

Even though science has officially kicked the Lancet paper to the curb, and public health officials and primary care providers have sought to correct the wrong, it is still difficult to “re-program” the public that it was all a hoax. I have seen many sites that are user-friendly that explain that the original study was bogus, and that a Cochrane Review of nearly 15 million children failed to demonstrate a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. However, the camp that believes in the link also has access to the internet, and THEY continue to post their theories that the government is trying to deceive the public, that there are conspiracy theories. Both sides say that parents have the right to choose. New age health perspectives including holistic medicine don’t always endorse vaccinations. The internet is at everyone’s fingertips. But each user has to take it upon themselves to do the research, but if you don’t have any scientific background and if you only have a second to look up a scientific topic – it’s kind of a game of PSA roulette which side of the MMR vaccine/autism controversy you’ll land on.

Social media can help spread information like wildfire – it’s great for spreading necessary, validated, and important information.   However, once bad information sets the public aflame, it is difficult to truly undo or take back that information!

Health care professionals need to be mindful of scientific updates to current paradigms, but also have to exercise respect of autonomy (whoa, ethics!) when dealing with patients who subscribe to a different school of thought.

A graphic is worth a thousand words!  The following image is the best thing I’ve seen on this topic in a while from





9 thoughts on “Fraudulent Scientific Study + Social Media = Perfect Storm?

  1. Nice one! It’s a great example how social media can be damaging by spreading non-validated or fraudulent posts/studies. One has to be very vigilant in believing whatever comes up on social media.Social media has such a vast audience that news, authentic or fraudulent, spreads rapidly and any damage done by such news can be very tough to rectify.

  2. I love your post Sun. Dr Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy really messed up some of the brains of our parents by strongly believing to them. There has been increased incidence of Measles in the past years especially in New York and California. I like what you wrote “Social media can help spread information like wildfire – it’s great for spreading necessary, validated, and important information. However, once bad information sets the public aflame, it is difficult to truly undo or take back that information!”. This really summed up the relationship of social media and falsified facts about vaccines. The diagram/picture rocks and I think Pediatricians can use this as information for parents who have questions about immunization.

  3. I just saw this info graphic the other day and was SO impressed. I think they really boil it all down. Gosh what a fiasco the whole vaccine situation has all been!! I can only hope that education continues to permeate the masses and stamp out the damage that has been done!

  4. Sad but true story. Many people who still believe the link (some in my own family included) are suffering from confirmation bias. I suspect it will take a generation for the effect to go away.

  5. The study that depressed me the most was the one that came out recently showing that a) showing anti-vax people evidence that MMR doesn’t cause autism makes them *more* likely not to believe you; and (b) showing people who already don’t believe you makes them even *less* likely to do so ( That result really stumped me as I see the world in such a different way. What kind of campaign do you think would work to get this population to vaccinate their children?

  6. Very informative post and very cool poster. It looks like they designed it so you can read as you scroll down. Good job, Sun.

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