Source: ABCNews

Anti-vaccine speech: How do we battle the freedom of speech that spreads misinformation?

In the name of free speech, can we misinform and deny someone’s right to a healthy life? Does an individual’s freedom of choice supersede the collective benefit?

On March 5th, Ethan Lindenberger, a teen from Ohio testified in front of Congress to talk about his decision to get vaccinated, defying his anti-vaxx mother. Ethan is now immunized against vaccine-preventable diseases such as hepatitis, polio, measles, mumps, and chickenpox.

In his testimony, Ethan named Facebook as the primary source of injecting, anti-vaccine sentiments in his mother, despite his repeated attempts to point out the research-based evidence — debunking any causal association between vaccination and the incidence of autism or brain damage.

The unchecked use of social media has inducted misinformation easily and very effectively, even at the cost of someone’s health and life. At the core of this efficiency lies the powerhouse, the First Amendment: freedom of speech. When this right is misused in the field of public health, the result can be deadly for other people too.

So what do I mean by misuse? The misuse here refers to spreading information that bears no scientific merit whatsoever, and hence, by sharing such misinformation in-person or virtually will endanger someone’s health. Anti-vaccine speech is one such example.

So what.

The CDC reported 228 cases of measles from January 1 to March 7, 2019. In New York City alone, there were 133 confirmed cases of a measles outbreak in Brooklyn and Queens since last October.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Let’s make it clear. Vaccine-preventable diseases are preventable, but have NOT yet disappeared from the face of the earth. Every year, thousands of children and adults die from these vaccine-preventable diseases, globally. In the U.S, the CDC has shown that the incidents of measles was attributed mainly due to traveling to another country in over 90% of cases.

Ethan Lindenberger’s mother recently met with the leader of the anti-vaxxer campaign, Larry Cook.

Cook has weaponized Facebook ads. In nine months, he spent $1,776 to boost his posts. His website Stop Mandatory Vaccination has a donation tab; the statement under the tab reads, “ All donations to me go directly to me and into my bank account, and from there I and I alone decide how to use the funds” The record from GoFundMe page indicates that Cook has generated $79,900 on his campaigns.

His website also contains “Vaccine Injury and Death Stories.” In short, he is capitalizing on fear.

Legally, 17 states permit parents to opt out of vaccinating their children on the basis of personal beliefs.

In Oklahoma, a GOP Gubernatorial candidate, Kevin Stitt is an anti-vaxxer who contends that he stands to oppose any legislation that mandates childhood vaccinations. He is not alone; President Trump has also expressed his skepticism around immunization. Later his spokeswoman, Donelle Harder clarified that the “root of his decision” stemmed from giving parents a choice. He won the election and was inaugurated as Oklahoma’s 28th governor.

Fundamental questions

  • In 2019, should unvaccinated kids compromise their and their peers’ health in the name of exercising freedom of speech?
  • How do we appreciate the conflicting interest between freedom of choice and freedom of speech?
  • Does an individual’s freedom of speech and choice supersede the collective benefit?

Parents and children.

  • Can a child make an informed choice about their vaccination status without undue influence from their parents?
  • Can parents impose their freedom of choice not to vaccinate their kids irrespective of the kid’s choices?

Where do we draw the line — when misinformed or otherwise willful anti-vaxx parents choose not to vaccinate their kids but end up denying a right to health of other kids in school who are medically unfit to get vaccinated themselves?

Here’s some irony.

The issue of women’s reproductive health never fails to invoke national outrage, specifically related to abortion rights. Keep in mind, whether you abort or not, it presents potential complications, directly to two entities: either a mother or an unborn child. Regardless, the decision does not rob any third person’s right to health.

This brings us to the next point; On the floor of Congress to local politics, the freedom to choice and life is heavily debated and advocated, extensively for the unborn child. Where the heck is this outrage against anti-vaxx parents who threaten the health of living children?

Where is that passion directed against abortion rights; we need that kind of heat in advocating for children who are compelled to suffer, unnecessarily from vaccine-preventable diseases.

What can we do.

American political journalist Michael Kinsley wrote “The scandal isn’t what’s illegal, the scandal is what’s legal.”

Defending someone’s right not only to conjure a conspiracy theory but also to spread it unfettered — at the expense of someone’s health shouldn’t be treated with legal leniency. More than anything else, it requires political will and legislations in place to categorically prohibit the anti-vaccine speech.

Did you say congressional hearings?

In all honesty, I think congressional hearings are useless without any concrete legal penalty; at best, they are used to humiliate the perpetrators, at the worst, it becomes an advertising platform.

The charade of the “sincere” apology from Mark Zuckerberg and his “we-are-working-on-it” attitude at a Congressional hearing falls unequivocally on deaf ears. Social media sites should take the responsibility of banning every form of anti-vaccine speech and hold them legally accountable if they failed.

Conclusion

A famous quote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” has been often used to signify the freedom of speech and it needs to be reframed.

No one should be defending someone’s right to “death” to spread health related misinformation such as anti-vaccine speech. Period.

Policy Analyst — Health Informatics. Opinions are mine, not employer’s.

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