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How Can Public Health Officials Combat Misinformation?

The internet has helped expand our world on an exponential level, as we can freely share information with a global audience. Unfortunately, that immense amount of information is also a double-edged sword, especially when it comes to misinformation. Fake news outlets are rampant, and misinformation is widely shared across social media and via word-of-mouth.

Medical professionals claim that viral misinformation is a major threat to public health, especially since approximately 80% of people seek out health information on the internet. According to Dr. Brittany Seymour at Harvard University, the recent anti-vaccination movement is one of the most glaring examples of the inherent risks of viral misinformation. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) also draw a large share of inaccurate information, leading to increased infection rates across the globe.

There are numerous ways that healthcare providers and the general public can combat healthcare misinformation. For starters, patients should always make sure to thoroughly fact check alleged sources when performing internet research related to health. Having a solid grasp on personal healthcare literacy is another important aspect when it comes to avoiding the spread of misinformation and making knowledgeable healthcare decisions. And healthcare professionals can work to promote a greater public understanding of medical science and quell common misconceptions about medical conditions, including STIs and chronic illnesses.

Balancing Medical Care with Cultural Traditions

Religious and cultural stigmas are some of the biggest culprits when it comes to inadequate healthcare information. In the realm of family planning, religion has long served as an effective roadblock for community-based sex education. Despite the myriad dissenters connected to faith-based organizations, the general public health community advocates for widespread sexual and reproductive health education, citing numerous benefits. For instance, access to contraception is linked to decreased instances of unwanted pregnancy, which then lowers abortion rates.

But religion is only a small piece of the larger picture of healthcare misinformation. While those opposed to vaccination have existed almost as long as vaccines themselves, the inherent dangers posed by the anti-vaxxer movement have become more apparent in the last decade. One of the most glaring examples is the spread of measles beginning in 2013. The first measles vaccine was developed in the early 1960s and was added to the CDC's list of recommended vaccines in the same decade.

Measles was officially eradicated in the U.S. in 2000, but the anti-vaxxer movement altered the course of the disease. Between 2013 and 2015, more than 1000 Americans contracted the measles virus, the majority of whom were unvaccinated. Yet the re-emergence of a disease that was previously eradicated has done little to change perceptions within the anti-vaxxer community.

Squashing the Stigma of STIs

Stopping the spread of contagious, fatal diseases is just one of the benefits of vaccinations. In addition, vaccines can help reduce the infection rate for some types of STIs, including Hepatitis A (also known as HAV), a serious liver infection. As there are three different strains of Hepatitis, there is widespread confusion regarding the virus and how it can be spread from person to person.

According to the San Francisco Department of Public Health, Hepatitis B and C are only spread via blood-to-blood contact. Hepatitis A, however, can be contracted in a number of ways, including close contact with an infected person and by consuming food or drink prepared by someone with HAV. The Hepatitis A vaccine can help protect against the virus, and is administered in two doses spaced 6-12 months apart.

Misinformation typically surrounds STIs that are highly communicable, including HAV and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. One of the biggest misconceptions about STIs is that you can contract them in public bathrooms, but that scenario is highly unlikely. In fact, public restrooms contain about the same amount of bacteria as household bathrooms and pose no immediate health threat, according to public health officials. Plumbing experts at Mr. Rooter cite Jack Gilbert, microbiologist and bathroom germ study co-author from Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, who claims: "The restroom isn't that dangerous. The organisms which can grow there have a very low probability of being able to cause an infection."

Yet there are certain groups who are at a higher risk of contracting STIs and other communicable diseases, such as those experiencing homelessness. And because symptoms may not be immediately apparent following infection and many STIs are asymptomatic, early detection is paramount to treatment. At-risk populations should receive regular screenings and accurate information about STIs to help reduce infection rates.

Vaccines: Beneficial or Harmful to Society?

Despite the vocal nature of anti-vaxxers, the majority of U.S. residents support mandatory vaccinations beginning at birth. However, the movement away from mandatory vaccines is one of the world's biggest public health threats, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And within the U.S., there has been a rise in anti-vaccination numbers over the last decade, on both religious and political grounds.

Eighteen U.S. states allow individuals to decline vaccination for non-medical reasons, considered "philosophical-belief" exemptions. Since 2009, the number of non-medical vaccination exemptions have risen in 12 of those 18 states. If public health officials have any chance of reducing those numbers, education on the importance of vaccinations is paramount.

At the individual level, actively supporting organizations that advocate for mandatory vaccinations and health education can make a big difference towards combating misinformation. Public health officials can also support politicians who are dedicated to health-related topics, including universal health insurance and STI testing for vulnerable populations.

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