When does “fake news” cause death?

When it’s misinformation about vaccinations.

In a world where even the most blatantly false statements get accelerated through social media, there is a special vulnerability for those who get spun by anti-vaccination claims.

Utah is seeing a rise in the number of parents seeking exemptions from school-required immunizations. After a measles outbreak in Washington in a county with low immunization rates, Utah’s public health leaders are warning that some Utah schools risk falling below the “herd immunity” level of 95 percent of children immunized.

When the number of unimmunized children in a population gets above five percent, outbreaks become possible. According to 2017 data, not quite 96 percent of Utah’s schoolchildren were immunized for measles, usually through an MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) shot.

In Clark County in southwest Washington, 30 cases of measles have been reported, most of them in children under 10. County records show that only 78 percent of county residents were vaccinated for measles.

The outbreak forced Washington’s governor to declare a statewide public health emergency last week. Washington’s next door neighbors in Oregon and Idaho followed up with their own public warnings.

Far from just a childhood annoyance, measles kills. Forty years ago, measles was responsible for more than 2 million deaths globally each year. Worldwide increases in immunization dropped that to under 100,000 by 2014. But by 2017, both disease and death rates were rising as immunization rates declined.

In developed nations like the United States, there is no excuse for a decline in immunizations. But there is an explanation.

Utah and Washington both have laws that require schoolchildren to be immunized, but both allow parents to exempt their children for personal reasons. In states that allow such exemptions, disease rates are inevitably higher. The argument for vaccination exemptions may appeal to people’s libertarian sense, but the result is that an outbreak puts even the immunized at a greater risk of contracting a disease that should be eradicated.

The decline in immunizations also has been tied to aggressive misinformation campaigns on social media from anti-vaccination groups.

Are vaccinations completely foolproof? No, but that’s not the right question. What really matters is whether a vaccinated population is better off than a non-vaccinated one. And on that there is no question. Utahns need to stop going for the fake.