Unless you’ve been off the grid the past month, it’s likely you’ve seen, shared or even commented on the measles outbreaks happening across the U.S. My own Facebook page has become a battleground between parents angry at those who refuse to vaccinate and others who are concerned the shots could lead to adverse reactions. On Twitter, I’ve seen doctors argue about how to talk to patients who express unease, or hostility toward vaccines.
The overall flurry of social commentary on vaccinations rose in late January, as reports emerged that a measles outbreak could be traced back to a sick Disneyland visitor in December that exposed other guests. The stream of tweets, posts and comments subsequently became a deluge once top national politicians started weighed in on whether parents should be required to vaccinate their children.
W2O Group decided to look at how doctors were addressing the topic on social media. We dove into our proprietary database, called MDigitalLife, which has created a ‘digital footprint map’ for more than 500,000 U.S. physicians. These digital footprints may include twitter accounts, blogs, Facebook pages, Instagram or LinkedIn accounts or practice websites. Like epidemiologists, we wanted to trace the outbreak of public, social commentary by physicians to see who was driving the conversation and spreading it the most.
Though the Super Bowl and the annual American Surgical Congress meeting were top retweeted topics in January, hashtags for measles and vaccines were also trending. In fact, while #health or #healthcare commanded a majority of the physician-originated tweets, #measles was the second hottest hashtag, with 25 percent of the posts measured. #SOTU, for State of the Union, came in third with 20 percent.
The volume of tweets mentioning measles went from a total of 92 in December to around 3,700 in January. There is a clear spike in mentions starting on January 21.
Interesting side note: while the jump in measles conversations is noticeable, it still is far below how much physicians were chatting about Ebola last year. That disease went from a single tweet mentioning it in February 2014 to 27,000 by October.
In January, the tweet from a physician that was retweeted the most by other physicians came from Dr. Jennifer Gunter, an obstetrician and gynecologist. It said: “Measles should be renamed McCarthy-Wakefield disease,” referring to Jenny McCarthy, the model, actress and TV host who is an anti-vaccine advocate, and Andrew Wakefield, the British former physician who’s (now discredited and retracted) 1998 paper in the journal Lancet linked the MMR vaccine to autism.
Some of the top shared tweets among doctors on the subject included a retweet from “God” that says “I’m bringing sexy back! Sorry, not sexy, measles.”
A tweet by NBC Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon also got a lot of play among this set. It read: “There are now 102 measles cases. You know things are getting bad when Disneyland opens a new ride called It’s a Small Pox World. #falonmono
Another top retweet by physicians was a link to a letter penned nearly 30 years ago by Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, among other beloved children’s books. Dahl wrote the letter urging parents to get their kids vaccinated. He recounted how his seven-year-old daughter, Olivia, who had contracted measles in 1962 was seemingly on her way to recovery, when she suddenly seemed unable to move her hands like she wanted to.
“I feel all sleepy,” she told him. Then, he says, “in an hour, she was unconscious. In twelve hours, she was dead.”
The Washing Post’s Wonkblog’s article on “The devastating impact of vaccine deniers, in one measles chart,” was also widely shared by physicians. The post shows the cumulative number of new measles cases from 2001 to 2014. According to the chart, there were 644 new measles cases last year, in 27 states, per the CDC.
A tweet linking immigrants to the outbreak showed up among the top retweeted posts. Coming from Dr. Marty Fox, a self-described “Father, Grandfather, Husband, Patriot, Conservative, Plastic Surgeon, Former And Occasional Talk Show Host,” his tweet read: “Illegals with measles + reduced vaccination rates = a measles outbreak: @ChuckCJohnson”
A tweet by Dr. David Gorski, a “A breast surgeon doing his best to defend science-based medicine against pseudoscience. His opinions are his and his alone. Still blocked by Andrew Wakefield,” as his Twitter bio reads, took a sarcastic approach to the idea that the government shouldn’t force people to vaccinate their children. His tweet read: “Those aren’t measles on your kid’s body. They’re freedom spots. ‘Merica!”
The topic shows no signs of slowing down. There have been more mentions of measles alone during the first 10 days of this month than all of January. A noticeable jump occurred on February 5, when #MeaslesTruth was posted about 1,200 times on Twitter, driven in large part by Wendy Sue Swanson, aka @SeattleMamaDoc, a Seattle-area pediatrician, with 26,400 followers.
As outbreaks continue to be reported in Chicago, Santa Monica and other areas, and the media increasingly covering this from local, national, political and health perspectives, #measles and #vaccines are likely to stay trending for quite some time.