Online misinformation is leaching out from cheap mobile phones and free Facebook plans used by millions in the Philippines, convincing many to reject vaccinations for polio and other deadly diseases.
Childhood immunisation rates have plummeted in the country — from 87 percent in 2014 to 68 percent — resulting in a measles epidemic and the reemergence of polio last year.
A highly politicised campaign that led to the withdrawal of dengue vaccine Dengvaxia in 2017 is widely seen as one of the main drivers of the fall.
But health experts also point to an explosion of vaccination-related misinformation that has undermined confidence in all types of immunisations.
In the northern city of Tarlac, government nurse Reeza Patriarca watched with horror the impacts of Facebook posts that falsely claimed five people had died after receiving an unspecified vaccination.
The posts, which have been shared thousands of times, went online in August, weeks after the relaunch of a World Health Organization-backed polio immunisation drive.
The Tarlac government and national health department issued statements saying no one had died, but Patriarca said the misinformation proved stronger than the truth for many parents.
“It spread like crazy. In the second week, more and more people were refusing,” said Patriarca, 27, whose health unit was administering the vaccine across nine neighbourhoods.
“Some believed the (government) explanation, others didn’t. We couldn’t force them.”
The false report in Tarlac even deterred people from getting free flu jabs in the nearby city of San Jose del Monte.
Health worker Rosanna Robianes said elderly people who would normally queue at her centre for their shot did not show up.
“They said it’s because of Facebook, that there’s a report that people who had been vaccinated in Tarlac had died,” she said.
– ‘Toxic to humans’ –
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