An epidemiological study from the US just published in the BMJ concluded that “the mortality gap in Republican voting counties compared with Democratic voting counties has grown over time, especially for white populations, and that gap began to widen after 2008.”
In a BMJ editorial, Steven Woolf comments on the study and provides further evidence on how politics influence health in the US. Here are his concluding two paragraphs:
Political influence on US mortality rates became overt during the covid-19 pandemic, when public health policies, controlled by states, were heavily influenced by party affiliation. Republican politicians, often seeking to appeal to President Trump and his supporters, challenged scientific evidence and opposed enforcement of vaccinations and safety measures such as masking. A macabre natural experiment occurred in 2021, a year marked by the convergence of vaccine availability and contagious variants that threatened unvaccinated populations: states led by governors who promoted vaccination and mandated pandemic control measures experienced much lower death rates than the “control” group, consisting of conservative states with lax policies and large unvaccinated populations. This behavior could explain why US mortality rates associated with covid-19 were so catastrophic, vastly exceeding losses in other high income countries.
Observers of health trends in the US should keep their eye on state governments, where tectonic shifts in policy are occurring. While gridlock in Washington, DC incapacitates the federal government, Republican leaders in dozens of state capitols are passing laws to undermine health and safety regulations, ban abortion, limit LGBT+ rights, and implement more conservative policies on voting, school curriculums, and climate policy. To understand the implications for population health, researchers must break with custom; although scientific literature has traditionally avoided discussing politics, the growing influence of partisan affiliation on policies affecting health makes this covariate an increasingly important subject of study.
What has this to do with so-called alternative medicine (SCAM)?
Not a lot.
Except, of course, that Trump has been quite sympathetic to both quackery and quacks (see, for instance, here and here). Moreover, the embarrassing Dr. Oz, America’s charlatan-in-chief, is now a Republican candidate for the US senate. And the creation of the NHI office for alternative medicine, currently called NCCIH, was the idea of the Republican senator, Tom Harkin.
I think we get the drift: on the US political level, SCAM seems to be a right-wing thing.
Am I claiming that SCAM is the cause of the higher mortality in Republican counties?
Do I feel that both are related to irresponsible attitudes towards healthcare issues?
Almost 10 years ago, I posted this:
When I decided to become a doctor I, like most medical students, did so mainly to help suffering individuals. When I became a researcher, I felt more removed from this original ideal. Yet I told myself that, by conducting research, I might eventually contribute to a better health care of tomorrow. Helping suffering patients was still firmly on the agenda. But then I realised that my articles in peer-reviewed medical journals somehow missed an important target: in alternative medicine, one ought to speak not just to health care professionals but also to consumers and patients; after all, it is they who often make the therapeutic decisions in this area.
Once I had realised this, I started addressing the general public by writing for The Guardian and other newspapers, giving public lectures and publishing books for a lay audience, like TRICK OR TREATMENT…The more I did this sort of thing, the more I noticed how important this activity was. And when a friend offered to help me set up a blog, I did not hesitate for long.
So, the reason for my enthusiasm for this blog turns out to be the same as the one that enticed me to go into medicine in the first place. I do believe that it is helpful for consumers to know the truth about alternative medicine. Considering the thousands of sources of daily misinformation in this area, there is an urgent need for well-informed, critical information. By providing it, I am sure I can assist people to make better therapeutic decisions. In a way, I am back where I started all those years ago: hoping to help suffering patients in the most direct way my expertise allows.
Helping vulnerable patients often means warning them from dangerous charlatans, and this is precisely what I frequently try to do with this blog. But how successful are my endeavors?
More often than not, I have no idea and can only hope for the best. Sometimes I do get some feedback that is encouraging and motivates me to carry on. Rarely, however, do I witness immediate, tangible success. And this is why the recent story is so remarkable:
- On 6 June, an Australian acquaintance from the FRIENDS OF SCIENCE IN MEDICINE sent me some material about a planned lecture in the UK by someone promoting dangerous quackery.
- I looked into it and published a blog post about it a few hours later.
- A reader then suggested in the comments section of this post alerting the UK press to it.
- Another reader contacted THE TIMES, and I wrote to several other journalists.
- THE TIMES turned out to be interested in the story.
- They did some research and interviewed Michael Marshall from the GOOD THINKING SOCIETY (and myself).
- Today, THE TIMES published an article about the planned event.
- Finally, a kind person made the article available to those who don’t want to pay for it.
The whole thing amounts to superb teamwork, in my view. It shows how like-minded people who do not even all know each other can manage to achieve a respectable result with little more than goodwill and dedication.
A respectable result?
Of course, the optimal result would be to stop Barbara O’Neill’s UK lectures. Let’s hope this is what eventually will happen – and please let me know if you know more.
This article almost left me speechless:
The back-to-back waves of the COVID-19 pandemic have made a devastating impact globally. The conventional healthcare system is going through serious pressure as cases of the disease continue to spread and the numbers of hospitalizations are increasing every moment. It is becoming hard and challenging because the hospital resources are limited in number as compared with the rate of daily hospitalizations. There are significant shortages of patient care facilities and medical care providers, and on top of that, conventional healthcare systems do not have any proven treatments for COVID-19 patients. Experimental drugs like hydroxychloroquine, followed by remdesivir, ritonavir/lopinavir, and favipiravir are being administered under emergency use authorization (EUA). There is evidence that these experimental medications are causing adverse drug reactions, thus claiming the lives of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients. And those patients who survive the EUA medications and hospitalizations are left with iatrogenic immunosuppressive states leading to increased susceptibility towards secondary life-threatening infections like fungal diseases. In this scenario, complementary and alternative medical systems (CAMS) are providing commendable results with negligible adverse effects or iatrogenic issues in patients with COVID-19. There are several clinical cases recorded and published by various independent homoeopathic doctors and researchers worldwide. But unfortunately, because of a biased medical model and greed for monopolies, these effective treatment methods are not given equal opportunity as their conventional counterparts.
I think the best way to react to this nonsense might be to remind us what the only RCT of homeopathy for COVID showed.
This randomized, double-blind, two-armed, parallel, single-center, placebo-controlled study investigated the effectiveness and safety of the homeopathic medicine, Natrum muriaticum LM2, for mild cases of COVID-19.
Participants aged > 18 years, with influenza-like symptoms and a positive COVID test were recruited and randomized (1:1) into two groups that received different treatments during a period of at-home isolation. One group received the homeopathic medicine Natrum muriaticum, prepared with the second degree of the fifty-millesimal dynamization (LM2; Natrum muriaticum LM2), while the other group received a placebo.
The primary endpoint was time until recovery from COVID-19 influenza-like symptoms. Secondary measures included a survival analysis of the number and severity of COVID-19 symptoms (influenza-like symptoms plus anosmia and ageusia) from a symptom grading scale that was informed by the participant, hospital admissions, and adverse events. Kaplan-Meier curves were used to estimate time-to-event (survival) measures.
Data from 86 participants were analyzed (homeopathy, n = 42; placebo, n = 44). There was no difference in time to recovery between the two groups (homeopathy, n = 41; placebo, n = 41; P = 0.56), nor in a sub-group that had at least 5 moderate to severe influenza-like symptoms at the beginning of monitoring (homeopathy, n = 15; placebo, n = 17; P = 0.06). Secondary outcomes indicated that a 50% reduction in symptom score was achieved significantly earlier in the homeopathy group (homeopathy, n = 24; placebo, n = 25; P = 0.04), among the participants with a basal symptom score ≥ 5. Moreover, values of restricted mean survival time indicated that patients receiving homeopathy might have improved 0.9 days faster during the first five days of follow-up (P = 0.022). Hospitalization rates were 2.4% in the homeopathy group and 6.8% in the placebo group (P = 0.62). Participants reported 3 adverse events in the homeopathy group and 6 in the placebo group.
The authors concluded that the results showed that Natrum muriaticum LM2 was safe to use for COVID-19, but there was no statistically significant difference in the primary endpoints of Natrum muriaticum LM2 and placebo for mild COVID-19 cases.
Another relevant study compared the antibody response of homeopathic and conventional vaccines and placebo in young adults. A placebo-controlled, double-blind RCT was conducted where 150 university students who had received childhood vaccinations were assigned to diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, mumps, measles homeopathic vaccine, placebo, or conventional diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus (Tdap) and mumps, measles, rubella (MMR) vaccines. The primary outcome was a ≥ two-fold increase in antibodies from baseline following vaccination as measured by ELISA. Participants, investigators, study coordinators, data blood drawers, laboratory technicians, and data analysts were all blinded.
None of the participants in either the homeopathic vaccine or the placebo group showed a ≥ two-fold response to any of the antigens. In contrast, of those vaccinated with Tdap, 68% (33/48) had a ≥ two-fold response to diphtheria, 83% (40/48) to pertussis toxoid, 88% (42/48) to tetanus, and 35% (17/48) of those vaccinated with MMR had a response to measles or mumps antigens (p < 0.001 for each comparison of conventional vaccine to homeopathic vaccine or to placebo). There was a significant increase in geometric mean titres of antibody from baseline for conventional vaccine antigens (p < 0.001 for each), but none for the response to homeopathic antigens or placebo.
The authors concluded that homeopathic vaccines do not evoke antibody responses and produce a response that is similar to placebo. In contrast, conventional vaccines provide a robust antibody response in the majority of those vaccinated.
To give ‘equal opportunity’ to implausible therapies would, in my view, not merely be wrong, it would be scandalously unethical. The role of homeopathy in the prophylaxis and symptomatic management of COVID-19 or other infections is very easily described; it is:
I have previously reported about the ‘Havelhöhe Community Hospital’ in Berlin and its medical director, Prof Harald Matthes. He made headlines two years ago when he claimed that anthroposophical remedies were effective for treating COVID. More recently, Matthes made headlines again when he went on TV claiming that serious adverse effects of COVID vaccinations were 40 times more frequent than generally accepted.
Now a German newspaper reports more about the ‘Havelhöhe Community Hospital’ and its medical director. Here are a few (translated) passages from this remarkable article:
At the Havelhöhe Community Hospital in Berlin, there are considerable shortcomings in the handling of the Corona pandemic … basic protective measures are in part neither adhered to nor monitored. In addition, employees of the anthroposophical clinic are recommended a vaccination regimen for which there is no approval, i.e. the option of “dose splitting with frequency increase,” in which the vaccine usually administered at one time is to be divided among several injections.
However, there is no official basis for this vaccination scheme. “There is no vaccine approved for it, and it does not correspond in any way to the Stiko recommendation,” said Gudrun Widders, the public health officer responsible. “My hair stands on end when I hear that,” says the head of the Berlin-Spandau health department, who is also a member of the Standing Commission on Vaccination.
Visitors of the hospital Havelhöhe can enter buildings and wards without control of the inoculation status or a daily updated test result which is against current regulations in Germany. While other Berlin hospitals such as the Charité imposed bans on visitors, a public concert took place at Havelhöhe Hospital, where the audience did not wear a mask, contrary to the valid Corona protection regulation. Employees of the hospital also report to the taz that many of the hospital staff are lax about wearing masks, even when on duty.
“I can only say something when I see someone,” said hospital director Harald Matthes. “And I don’t see anyone with me in the hospital who walks around without a mask.” Matthes had publicly criticized corona measures as excessive on several occasions.
I have said it before and I say it again: in my view, Matthes’ behavior amounts to serious professional misconduct. I, therefore, suggest that his professional body, the Aerztekammer, look into it with a view of preventing further harm.
During the last two years, I have written more often than I care to remember about the numerous links between so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) and COVID-19 vaccination hesitancy. For instance:
- A Professor for Integrative and Anthroposophical Medicine claims that severe adverse effects of COVID vaccinations are 40 times more frequent than officially recognized
- What are the reasons for opposing COVID vaccinations?
- A naturopath promoting fake news about COVID vaccinations
- COVID-19 vaccinations: Prof Walach wants to “dampen the enthusiasm by sober facts”
- A change in diet protects us from severe COVID symptoms – REALLY?
- Intelligence, Religiosity, SCAM, Vaccination Hesitancy – are there links?
- Upper Bavaria is struggling with COVID-19, not least due to so-called alternative medicine
- The International Chiropractors Association’s Statement on Vaccination
- Parents’ Willingness to Vaccinate with a COVID-19 Vaccine: strongly influenced by homeopathy
- “The uncensored truth” about COVID-19 vaccines” … as told by some chiro loons
- Ex-doctor Andrew Wakefield: “Better to die as a free man than live as a slave” (and get vaccinated against Covid-19)
- Is this the crown of the Corona-idiocy? Nosodes In Prevention And Management Of COVID -19
- The rejection of so-called alternative medicine is associated with a higher willingness to get vaccinated
Whenever I publish a post on these subjects, some enthusiasts of SCAM argue that, despite all this evidence, they are not really against COVID vaccinations. But who is correct? What proportions of SCAM practitioners are pro or contra? One way to find out is to check how they themselves behave. Do they get vaccinated or not?
Here are some recent data from Canada that seem to provide an answer.
A breakdown of vaccination rates among Canadian healthcare professions has been released, based on data gathered from 17 of B.C.’s 18 regulated colleges. The findings are most revealing:
- dieticians, physicians, and surgeons lead the way, with vaccination rates of 98%,
- occupational therapists were at 97%,
- Chinese medicine practitioners and acupuncturists were at 79%,
- chiropractors at 78%
- naturopaths at 69%.
The provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the province is still working with the colleges on how to notify patients about their practitioner’s vaccination status. “We are working with each college on how to build it into professional standards. The overriding principle is patient status,” she told a news conference. “It may be things like when you call to book, you are asked whether you would prefer to see a vaccinated or unvaccinated professional. We are trying to protect privacy and provide agency to make the decision.”
As far as I am aware, these are unique data. It would be interesting to see additional evidence. If anyone knows about vaccination rates in other countries of acupuncturists, herbalists, homeopaths, osteopaths, Heilpraktiker, etc. I would love to learn more.
I was alerted to the following short article from ‘The Blackpool Gazette‘:
Criminals have been using the brand name Pfizer to sell fake homeopathic vaccines to residents, according to police. The white tablets are sold under the pretence that they are an alternative to traditional vaccines, but actually contain no active ingredient. Analysis conducted by Lancashire Police revealed the tablets were nothing more than sugar pills. “Please note Pfizer do not produce any tablets as a cure or prophylactic for COVID-19,” a spokesman for the force added.
Homeopathy is a “treatment” based on the use of highly diluted substances, which practitioners claim can help the body heal itself, according to the NHS. A 2010 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on homeopathy said that homeopathic remedies perform no better than placebos. In 2017, NHS England said it would no longer fund homeopathy on the NHS as the lack of any evidence for its effectiveness did not justify the cost. This was backed by a High Court judgement in 2018.
I think there might be a slight misunderstanding here. The homeopathic remedy might not be fake, as it was produced according to the concepts of homeopathy. It is homeopathy itself that is fake. To me, it looks as though we are dealing with the German product I mentioned a while ago. Let me remind you:
Many people believe that homeopathy is essentially plant-based – but they are mistaken! Homeopathic remedies can be made from anything: Berlin wall, X-ray, pus, excrement, dental plaque, mobile phone rays, poisons … anything you can possibly think of. So, why not from vaccines?
This is exactly what a pharmacist specialized in homeopathy thought.
It has been reported that the ‘Schloss-Apotheke’ in Koblenz, Germany offered for sale a homeopathic remedy made from the Pfizer vaccine. This has since prompted not only the Chamber of Pharmacists but also the Paul Ehrlich Institute and Pfizer to issue statements. On Friday (30/4/2021) morning, the pharmacy had advertised homeopathic remedies based on the Pfizer/Biontech vaccine. The Westphalia-Lippe Chamber of Pharmacists then issued an explicit warning against it. “We are stunned by this,” said a spokesman. The offer has since disappeared from the pharmacy’s website.
On Friday afternoon, the manufacturer of the original vaccine also intervened. The Paul Ehrlich Institute released a statement making it clear that a vaccine is only safe “if it is administered in accordance with the marketing authorization.”
The Schloss-Apotheke had advertised the product in question with the following words:
“We have Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19-Vaccine in potentized form up to D30 as globules or dilution (for discharge) in stock.”
The chamber of pharmacists countered with a warming under the heading “Facts instead of Fake News” on Facebook and Instagram:
“Whatever they might contain: These remedies are no effective protection against Covid-19.”
Pharmacy manager, Annette Eichele, of the Schloss-Apotheke claimed she had not sold homeopathic Corona vaccines and stressed that effective vaccines of this kind do not exist. According to Eichele, only an additional “mini drop” of the original Biontech vaccine had been used and “highly potentized” and prepared homeopathically. According to Eichele, Corona vaccinations that had already been administered were thus to have a “better and more correct effect with this supplementary product, possibly without causing side effects … but this is not scientifically proven”. The homeopathic product had been produced only on customer request and had been sold less than a dozen times in the past weeks. Ten grams of the remedy were sold for about 15 Euros. On Twitter, Eichele stated: „Wir haben nichts Böses getan, wir wollten nur Menschen helfen!“ (We have done nothing evil, we only wanted to help people). I am reminded yet again of Bert Brecht who observed:
“The opposite of good is not evil but good intentions”.
If I am right, the remedy is not truly fake but a genuine product of a fake concept, namely homeopathy. In that case, the term ‘criminal’ might need to be applied to homeopathy itself – an interesting thought!
Harad Matthes, the boss of the anthroposophical Krankenhaus Havelhoehe and professor for Integrative and Anthroposophical Medicine at the Charite in Berlin, has featured on my blog before (see here and here). Now he is making headlines again.
‘Die Zeit‘ reported that Matthes went on German TV to claim that the rate of severe adverse effects of COVID-19 vaccinations is about 40 times higher than the official figures indicate. In the MDR broadcast ‘Umschau’ Matthes said that his unpublished data show a rate of 0,8% of severe adverse effects. In an interview, he later confirmed this notion. Yet, the official figures in Germany indicate that the rate is 0,02%.
How can this be?
Die ZEIT ONLINE did some research and found that Matthes’ data are based on extremely shoddy science and mistakes. The Carite also distanced themselves from Matthes’ evaluation: “The investigation is an open survey and not really a scientific study. The data are not suitable for drawing definitive conclusions regarding incidence figures in the population that can be generalized” The problems with Matthes’ ‘study’ seem to be sevenfold:
- The data are not published and can thus not be scrutinized.
- Matthes’ definition of a severe adverse effect is not in keeping with the generally accepted definition.
- Matthes did not verify the adverse effects but relied on the information volunteered by people over the Internet.
- Matthes’ survey is based on an online questionnaire accessible to anyone. Thus it is wide open to selection bias.
- The sample size of the survey is around 10 000 which is far too small for generalizable conclusions.
- There is no control group which makes it impossible to differentiate a meaningful signal from mere background noise.
- The data contradict those from numerous other studies that were considerably more rigorous.
Despite these obvious flaws Matthes insisted in a conversation with ZEIT ONLINE that the German official incidence figures are incorrect. As Germany already has its fair share of anti-vaxxers, Matthes’ unfounded and irresponsible claims contribute significantly to the public sentiments against COVID vaccinations. They thus endangering public health.
In my view, such behavior amounts to serious professional misconduct. I, therefore, feel that his professional body, the Aerztekammer, should look into it and prevent further harm.
The pandemic has shown how difficult it can be to pass laws stopping healthcare professionals from giving unsound medical advice has proved challenging. The right to freedom of speech regularly conflicts with the duty to protect the public. How can a government best sail between Scylla and Charybdis? JAMA has just published an interesting paper addressing these issues. Here is an excerpt from the article that might stimulate some discussion:
The government can take several actions, including:
- Imposing sanctions on COVID-19–related practices by licensed professionals that flout substantive laws in connection with providing medical services, even if those medical services include speech. This includes physicians failing to comply with COVID-19–related public health laws applicable to medical offices and health facilities, such as mask wearing, social distancing, and restrictions on elective procedures.
- Sanctioning recommendations by professionals that patients take illegal medications or controlled substances without following legally required procedures. The government can also sanction the marketing by others of prescription medications for unapproved indications. However, “off-label” prescribing by physicians (eg, for hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin) remains lawful as long as a medication is approved by the US Food and Drug Administration for any indication and no specific legal conditions on use are in effect.
- Enforcing tort law actions (eg, malpractice, lack of informed consent) in cases of alleged patient injury that result from recommending a potentially dangerous treatment or failing to recommend a necessary treatment.
- Imposing sanctions on individualized medical advice by unlicensed individuals or organizations if giving that advice constitutes the unlawful practice of medicine.
In addition, the government probably can:
- Impose sanctions for false or misleading information offered to obtain a financial or personal benefit, particularly if giving the information constitutes fraud under applicable law. This would encompass physicians who knowingly spread false information to create celebrity or attract patients.
- Threaten disciplinary action by licensing boards against health professionals whose speech to patients conveys incorrect science or substandard medicine.
- Specify the information that may and may not be imparted by private organizations and professionals as part of specific clinical services paid for by government, such as special programs for COVID-19 testing or treatment.
- Reject legal challenges to, and enforce through generally applicable contract or employment laws, any restrictions private health care organizations place on speech by affiliated health professionals, particularly in the absence of special laws conferring “conscience” protections. This would include medical staff membership and privileges, hospital or other employment agreements, and insurance network participation.
- Enforce restrictions on speech adopted by private professional or self-regulatory organizations if the consequences for violations are limited to revoking organizational membership or accreditation.
However, the government probably cannot:
- Compel or limit health professional speech not made in connection with patient care, even if the speech is false or misleading, regardless of its alleged effect on public trust in health professions.
- Sanction speech to the general public rather than to patients, whether or not by health professionals, especially if conveyed with a disclaimer that the speech is “not intended as medical advice.”
- Sanction speech by health professionals to patients conveying political views or skepticism of government policy.
- Enforce restrictions involving information by public universities and public hospitals that legislatures, regulatory agencies, and professional licensing boards would not be constitutionally permitted to impose directly.
- Adopt restrictions on information related to overall clinical services funded by large government health programs, such as Medicare and Medicaid.
The article was obviously written with MDs in mind and applies only to US law. As we have seen in previous posts and comments, the debate is, however, wider. We should, I think, also have it in relation to practitioners of so-called alternative medicine (SCAM) and medical ethics. Moreover, it should go beyond advice about COVID and be extended to any medical advice given by any type of healthcare practitioner.
Micronutrient supplements such as vitamin D, vitamin C, and zinc have been used in managing viral illnesses. However, the clinical significance of these individual micronutrients in patients with Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) remains unclear. A team of researchers conducted this meta-analysis to provide a quantitative assessment of the clinical significance of these individual micronutrients in COVID-19.
They performed a literature search using MEDLINE, Embase, and Cochrane databases through December 5th, 2021. All individual micronutrients reported by ≥ 3 studies and compared with standard-of-care (SOC) were included. The primary outcome was mortality. The secondary outcomes were intubation rate and length of hospital stay (LOS). Pooled risk ratios (RR) and mean difference (MD) with corresponding 95% confidence intervals (CI) were calculated using the random-effects model.
The authors identified 26 studies (10 randomized controlled trials and 16 observational studies) involving 5633 COVID-19 patients that compared three individual micronutrient supplements (vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc) with SOC.
Nine studies evaluated vitamin C in 1488 patients (605 in vitamin C and 883 in SOC). Vitamin C supplementation had no significant effect on mortality (RR 1.00, 95% CI 0.62–1.62, P = 1.00), intubation rate (RR 1.77, 95% CI 0.56–5.56, P = 0.33), or LOS (MD 0.64; 95% CI -1.70, 2.99; P = 0.59).
Fourteen studies assessed the impact of vitamin D on mortality among 3497 patients (927 in vitamin D and 2570 in SOC). Vitamin D did not reduce mortality (RR 0.75, 95% CI 0.49–1.17, P = 0.21) but reduced intubation rate (RR 0.55, 95% CI 0.32–0.97, P = 0.04) and LOS (MD -1.26; 95% CI -2.27, −0.25; P = 0.01). Subgroup analysis showed that vitamin D supplementation was not associated with a mortality benefit in patients receiving vitamin D pre or post COVID-19 diagnosis.
Five studies, including 738 patients, compared zinc intake with SOC (447 in zinc and 291 in SOC). Zinc supplementation was not associated with a significant reduction of mortality (RR 0.79, 95% CI 0.60–1.03, P = 0.08).
The authors concluded that individual micronutrient supplementations, including vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc, were not associated with a mortality benefit in COVID-19. Vitamin D may be associated with lower intubation rate and shorter LOS, but vitamin C did not reduce intubation rate or LOS. Further research is needed to validate our findings.
Vaccine hesitancy is currently recognized by the WHO as a major threat to global health. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a growing interest in the role of social media in the propagation of false information and fringe narratives regarding vaccination. Using a sample of approximately 60 billion tweets, Danish investigators conducted a large-scale analysis of the vaccine discourse on Twitter. They used methods from deep learning and transfer learning to estimate the vaccine sentiments expressed in tweets, then categorize individual-level user attitudes towards vaccines. Drawing on an interaction graph representing mutual interactions between users, They analyzed the interplay between vaccine stances, interaction network, and the information sources shared by users in vaccine-related contexts.
The results show that strongly anti-vaccine users frequently share content from sources of a commercial nature; typically sources that sell alternative health products for profit. An interesting aspect of this finding is that concerns regarding commercial conflicts of interests are often cited as one of the major factors in vaccine hesitancy.
The authors furthermore demonstrate that the debate is highly polarized, in the sense that users with similar stances on vaccination interact preferentially with one another. Extending this insight, the authors provide evidence of an epistemic echo chamber effect, where users are exposed to highly dissimilar sources of vaccine information, enforcing the vaccination stance of their contacts.
The authors concluded that their findings highlight the importance of understanding and addressing vaccine mis- and disinformation in the context in which they are disseminated in social networks.
In the article, the authors comment that their findings paint a picture of the vaccine discourse on Twitter as highly polarized, where users who express similar sentiments regarding vaccinations are more likely to interact with one another, and tend to share contents from similar sources. Focusing on users whose vaccination stances are the positive and negative extremes of the spectrum, we observe relatively disjoint ‘epistemic echo chambers’ which imply that members of the two groups of users rarely interact, and in which users experience highly dissimilar ‘information landscapes’ depending on their stance. Finally, we find that strongly anti-vaccine users much more frequently share information from actors with a vested commercial interest in promoting medical misinformation.
One implication of these findings is that online (medical) misinformation may present an even greater problem than previously thought, because beliefs and behaviors in tightly knit, internally homogeneous communities are more resilient, and provide fertile ground for fringe narratives, while mainstream information is attenuated. Furthermore, such polarization of communities may become self-perpetuating, because individuals avoid those not sharing their views, or because exposure to mainstream information might further entrench fringe viewpoints.