In the Philippines, anti-vaccine misinformation goes viral

In the Philippines, disinformation spreading through cheap cell phones and Facebook, which millions of underprivileged people have free access to, has led many residents to reject vaccinations against polio and other deadly diseases.

The immunization coverage of children in the archipelago thus increased from 87% in 2014 to 68% in 2019, the year in which the archipelago experienced a measles epidemic and the reappearance of polio.

This disaffection is largely linked to a controversy surrounding Dengvaxia.

In 2017, the world’s first dengue vaccine was withdrawn after its manufacturer, the French group Sanofi, revealed that it could worsen symptoms in people not previously infected with the virus.

Experts are also pointing to false information about vaccination circulating on social networks that has undermined public confidence in all types of immunization.

In the northern town of Tarlac, Reeza Patriarca, a nurse, saw with dismay the consequences of false news on Facebook about the deaths of five people after unspecified vaccination.

Shared thousands of times, these posts appeared in August, after a WHO-backed polio vaccination campaign resumed.

Denials by the Tarlac authorities and the Ministry of Health have failed to quell the rumor and misinformation has overtaken the truth in the minds of many parents, Ms. Patriarca laments.

“Some believed the (government) explanation, others did not,” said the 27-year-old nurse.

This false information reached the nearby city of San José del Monte, dissuading many residents from getting free flu shots.

Rosanna Robianes, a medical professional, says the elderly she usually saw did not come.

“They said it was because of Facebook circulating a post that people vaccinated in Tarlac have died,” she testified.

Interest in vaccine fake news has increased during the pandemic.

In the Philippines, the number of people who follow anti-vaccine groups or pages on Facebook has increased from 190,000 to around 500,000, according to social media analysis tool CrowdTangle.

Some 8 million reactions, comments and shares of this type of content have been recorded since the outbreak of the epidemic

April Villa, 40, and mother of two in the northern province of Laguna, is part of the anti-vaccine.

On Facebook, she follows the group “No to vaccines – Philippines” created in July and which has more than 2,000 members.

“The fear lasts a long time”

She told AFP that she joined her to get “information that our education system could never teach.”

The vaccines “are toxic to the human body, they kill natural antibodies,” says the young woman who does not intend to be vaccinated against Covid-19 over time.

Most of the 73 million Filipino internet users have Facebook accounts, according to UK media consultancy We Are Social.

Almost all access the site from a mobile phone, with Facebook offering free access to a limited version of its platform as well as other selected sites.

Many underprivileged Filipinos thus depend on this offer called Free Basics and the social media giant.

Facebook founder and boss Mark Zuckerberg defended it, arguing that it allows people who cannot afford it to access the internet.

During the 2016 presidential election, posts about candidate Rodrigo Duterte flooded Facebook, playing a crucial role in his electoral victory.

It is also a boon for anti-vaccines, officials say.

Wilda Silva, head of the immunization program at the Ministry of Health, believes that false information about vaccines “circulates faster and further than exact information”.

“Once you harness this fear factor, people’s mindsets change quickly and fear lasts a long time in their minds,” said Silva, who fears a big epidemic next year of preventable diseases. .

This fear could also affect vaccination against Covid-19 even among those who favor the vaccines, in the country which has the highest infection rate in Southeast Asia.

“I have 100% confidence in the vaccines,” says Jett Bucho, who had his one-year-old daughter vaccinated against polio in San Jose Del Monte.

But the 26-year-old mother admits that after reading conspiracy theories that the Covid-19 vaccine could be used to implant microchips and control humans, doubt has crept into her mind.

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