There are more than 600 confirmed measles cases in the United States right now, putting the country on track for its worst measles record in a quarter century. It's being blamed on the anti-vaccine movement.
Channel 11 found out that same movement tried to silence a local pediatric office over a Facebook post. Instead, that office teamed up with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh to learn more about why people turn against vaccinations.
Kids Plus Pediatrics posted a video about HPV vaccines, trying to encourage patients to consider getting vaccinated. The practice has locations in Cranberry, Squirrel Hill and Pleasant Hills. It expected responses from patients in those areas. What it didn't expect was worldwide attention.
"They were coming from New Zealand and Texas and Ireland and Central Europe," CEO Todd Wolynn told us about the slew of responses to the post.
Wolynn told us it went beyond nasty messages in response to the post. Pretty soon, there were people trying to block the office's phone lines. Other attacks targeted the Google and Yelp reviews.
"They know if they damage your reviews significantly, your reputation, business will go elsewhere," Wolynn said.
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Some people even focused on patients of the practice. Wolynn said it took Yelp two weeks to take down the fake reviews. It took Google more than a year. He said they were ready to withstand the social media coordinated attacks, but other practices across the country are not so lucky.
"The anti-vaccine movement is actually attacking pediatricians and silencing them," he told Channel 11.
Kids Plus Pediatrics got researchers at the University of Pittsburgh involved. Researchers like Beth Hoffman studied the responses to the post.
"The people we looked at were from 36 states and eight countries," Hoffman said. "Only five listed a location in PA but eight listed in Australia."
Hoffman told Channel 11 it was about more than whether vaccines cause autism for some people. There were posts from people concerned about government conspiracies. Others talked about a lack of trust in medicine. Others still focused on whether alternative medicines like homeopathic therapies could work just as well. That knowledge could shape the way doctors talk to patients and their families.
"What we need to do is start thinking, how can we deliver tailored messages that really get at all these concerns we're seeing," Hoffman said.
One thing was clear to researchers. They said social media is amplifying these messages to a wider audience. Kids Plus Pediatrics is developing tool kits to help other practices facing targeted campaigns by anti-vaccinators. Wolynn says there needs to be more accountability.
"Social media platforms have yet to put in a real concerted effort to making sure this doesn't happen again," he said.
Wolynn said it was important to remember that anti vaccinators make up only one to two percent of the population. With social media, their ideas can be spread across the world fast.
Cox Media Group