Vaccinating Misinformation: Past outbreak highlights dangers of current ‘info-demic’

As scientists work to find a vaccine for COVID-19, public health experts and community advocates are already bracing for a new wave of misinformation that could undermine efforts to protect people from the virus.

In Minneapolis, the impact of misinformation about a highly contagious disease is far from hypothetical – leaders in the city’s Somali community say false information about vaccines played a key role in a measles outbreak that sickened mostly Somali children in 2017.

Abdi Bihi has been an advocate for his community for 24 years and says he saw the harmful fallout first hand.

"I met a family that spent so much time in the hospital," Bihi said. "The pain that family went through was unbearable."

Outside influence

Despite once having some of the highest immunization rates in the state, Bihi and others say growing concerns about autism in Somali children made some parents susceptible to misinformation about what caused the disability.

"People were frustrated and they were happy with an easy answer, but that easy answer was fake," Bihi said.

Health experts say a misinformation campaign waged by anti-vaccine voices from outside the Somali community in Minneapolis was influential in driving down measles vaccination rates, which started falling more than a decade ago, from near 90% to just 42% at the time of the outbreak in 2017.

"There was an outside influence," said Kris Ehresmann, Director of Infectious Disease at the Minnesota Department of Health.

British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who is widely disgraced by the international medical community, was among those who came to Minneapolis in the years leading up to the measles outbreak to promote his study linking the measles vaccine with autism even though it had already been fully retracted and debunked.

"I do think there are some individuals who recognize the limitations of what they’re promoting and yet continue to do so," Ehresmann said.


117 million views

Now Bihi says a new round of misinformation – this time about COVID-19 – is threatening his community again.

"Like ‘it doesn’t happen to Muslim people, it doesn’t happen to black people,’" Bihi said.

A Facebook post sharing that exact misinformation, along with more than 100 other social media posts containing false information about coronavirus, was examined by the non-profit Avaaz in April. The review found people around the world shared that content 1.7 million times on Facebook, racking up 117 million views.

"When information, any information, correct or incorrect– if it is repeated a lot, if it becomes familiar, then it feels true," said Panayiota Kendeou, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Minnesota who is an expert on misinformation.

Kendeou’s past research included a survey of visitors at the Minnesota State Fair in 2016 to gauge misperceptions about autism. That study found about 20% of people believed vaccines could cause the disability.

Spread faster than germs

Before social distancing guidelines in Minnesota, 5 INVESTIGATES invited Kendeou to 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS’ studios to demonstrate the psychology of misinformation with a group of volunteers selected with the help of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota.

Although none of the six volunteers said they believed vaccines cause autism, they proved to be susceptible to misinformation.

"How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the ark?" Kendeou asked the group.

While most responded with "two," at least one person spotted the deception.

"It wasn’t Moses, right? It was Noah," said the volunteer.

That mix of truth and a lie is commonly known as the "Moses Illusion" among researchers and is familiar to those who’ve been fighting misinformation about vaccines, including Patsy Stinchfield and Siman Nuurali at Children’s Hospital Minnesota.

"Disinformation is infectious. Misinformation is infectious," Stinchfield said. "It can spread faster than germs do sometimes."

"You are now competing for space with a person on Facebook who seems to think lavender oil will cure measles or somebody who tweets out – who has 2.5 million followers – who tells you to drink yogurt in the morning and you don’t need vaccines," Nuurali said. "And that’s what you’re fighting against. So, you are the bad guy, journalists are the bad guy, the media is the bad guy, the government is the bad guy."

Even Ehresmann, who is now a familiar voice during Gov. Tim Walz’s COVID-19 briefings, says she was the target of misinformation and disinformation attacks in 2017 as she urged families to vaccinate their children.

"There were things said about me and my family," Ehresmann said.

Another outbreak ‘likely’

In the aftermath of the measles outbreak, MDH says vaccination rates among Somali children rebounded slightly to 59% in 2018, but are now falling again, as low as 55% last year.

"We do have populations that are very much at risk and would be a tinderbox if there was an introduction," Ehresmannsaid.

Stinchfield called the chances of another measles outbreak "likely."

"Really there’s no other word for it. It’s catastrophic," Nuurali said. "I don’t think people really understand the extent to which this is really harmful."

Bihi acknowledges there is more work to be done educating the community, but he says the outbreak of 2017 did change some minds.

"I think that experience has really helped us to listen to our health care providers," Bihi said. "It actually helped us prepare for coronavirus… because of the misinformation [about the measles vaccine], we got on the front lines right away, providing the right information."