London: Social media is being increasingly used to spread misinformation about vaccinations, according to a report which found that at least two in five parents are exposed to negative messages about vaccines.
The report by Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) in the UK showed that the perceived risks of side effects are the key concern among those who choose not to vaccinate.
Across a range of vaccines including measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), influenza, and fear of side effects was the most common reason for choosing not to vaccinate.
While all vaccines have potential side effects, in reality they only affect some people and are typically mild, short-lived, and far outweighed by the benefits of immunisation.
"It is 21 years since Andrew Wakefield published his infamous and now widely discredited paper on an alleged link between the MMR vaccine and autism, and Europe is still living with the consequences -- as we have seen with the resurgence in measles rates in recent years," said Shirley Cramer, Chief Executive of RSPH.
"In the 21st Century it would be unacceptable to allow vaccine-preventable diseases to make a comeback, and it is vital we do all we can to ensure the UK maintains its status as a global leader in vaccination," said Cramer.
The report explores vaccinations in the UK from childhood to older age, investigating the role of and barriers to vaccination throughout life.
It revealed the extent to which public concern over side effects of vaccination continues to be a barrier to uptake. 'Fake news' on social media may be influential in spreading these concerns.
However, attitudes to vaccines in general were largely positive, with 91 per cent of parents in agreement that vaccines are important for their children's health.
The report also found that there is a fairly low understanding of key concepts of vaccination, with over a quarter of people (28 per cent) incorrectly believing 'you can have too many vaccinations'.
Timing, availability and location of appointments were identified as barriers to vaccination by both the public and by healthcare professionals.
The researchers call for a multi-pronged approach to improving and maintaining uptake of vaccinations.
Efforts to limit 'fake news' about vaccinations online and via social media should be stepped up, especially by social media platforms themselves.
Vaccinations should be offered in a more diverse range of locations, including at high-street pop-ups, gyms and workplaces, utilising the wider public health workforce.
"Vaccinations are one of the most powerful tools we have for protecting and improving the public's health, saving millions of lives every year across the globe. The value of vaccinations throughout life should not be underestimated," said Cramer.
"History has taught us that fear and misinformation about vaccines can cause substantial damage to even the strongest vaccination programmes," said Cramer.
"With the rise of social media, we must guard against the spread of 'fake news' about vaccinations.
"We have found worrying levels of exposure to negative messages about vaccinations on social media, and the spread of misinformation -- if it impacts uptake of vaccines -- could severely damage the public health.