Matt Jacob, author of this article, has played a pivotal role in promoting fluoridation for approximately the last 15 years. (EC)
The answer to this headline may seem obvious if you care about public health and prevention. Consider this fact: last year, measles cases in the U.S. reached their highest level in 27 years. Most of those cases involved people who were not vaccinated — an outbreak fueled partly by social media users who circulated false, misleading or irrelevant information about the MMR vaccine.
As two Canadian physicians warned last year, vaccinations and water fluoridation are among various health issues facing “torrents of misinformation” online, including “marketing by phony experts” and other digital scammers.
There are days when you read nonsense on social media and it is tempting to throw up your hands and ask: “What’s the point?” I get it. But why desert social media and leave it to those who mislead people about health issues? Doing so would make matters worse, not better.
Vaccine and fluoride critics existed long before social media emerged. (Consider this anti-fluoridation leaflet from Seattle during the early 1950s.) Twitter, Facebook and other platforms have only given these critics a new place to encourage doubt and fear. Those of us who care deeply about health, wellness and science have an obligation to counter this misinformation.
Many people on social media have not fully formed an opinion on vaccines, fluoride or other health issues. Sharing your views on these platforms could reach these individuals and help them gain clarity. This is not just wishful thinking. In a Pediatrics study, pregnant women who were given access to both web-based vaccine information and interactive social media (including a blog and a chat room) were more likely to get their young children vaccinated.
We are more likely to succeed when we are engaged in social media — not when we walk away from it. Public health leaders and their allies have successfully pushed social media platforms to take appropriate steps that prioritize accurate information about vaccines.
State and local health departments should regularly use social media as a vehicle to educate the public about vaccinations, fluoridation and other issues. Sadly, many health departments are AWOL for one of three reasons:
- Many health departments simply don’t have a social media account.
- Some departments have accounts but their internal approval process is so long and arduous that few messages are disseminated.
- Other departments have accounts but seem to tip-toe around “controversial” issues that might bring unwanted negative comments.
Timidity by public health stakeholders makes it easier for junk science to spread. Moreover, health leaders should not overlook the potential that social media offers. It gives health departments and cash-strapped nonprofits a low-cost platform to reach the public.
Several years ago, the Ice Bucket Challenge became a “thing,” as more than 17 million people uploaded their videos to Facebook, which were watched an astounding 10 billion times.
Social media can help public health officials track influenza and other disease prevalence. Researchers at Northeastern University have used millions of Twitter messages to help predict the severity of flu outbreaks weeks in advance. One researcher said that with Twitter, “you get the data right at the very moment and it has very accurate localization of the data.”
Real-time data are powerful. Being able to predict where or how quickly a disease outbreak could move enables a public health agency to plan ahead to distribute medical supplies, target certain communities with educational efforts or take other appropriate steps.
One challenge to strengthening public health’s presence on social media is that the perception in some corners that social media bear little relevance to the ongoing work of health leaders. They forget that social media is a platform for communication with a diverse audience. If you or your agency has a communication plan, social media should be a part of it.
Health officials should also be aware that young people are more likely than older adults to use social media as a news source. This segment of the population (people who cannot recall a world without vaccinations and water fluoridation) is a critical audience to provide with accurate information.
State and local health commissioners should encourage their departments to get social. Having a review process makes sense, but it’s unacceptable when it takes many days or even weeks to get content approved.
There are some hopeful signs out there. Dr. Jerome Adams, our nation’s Surgeon General, is very active on social media. Pediatricians and other health professionals are stepping up and using hashtags like #DoctorsSpeakUp to display their willingness to answer questions and share the facts. New Jersey has given its state dental director his own Twitter account — that’s a first, I believe.
When I recently spoke with New Jersey’s dental director and asked why he was active on Twitter, his answer nailed it: “Social media allows you to reach people where they are.”
*Original article online at https://medium.com/@Mattindctweets/is-social-media-broken-96998986982f