Anti-vaxxers attacked Western Pa. pediatricians. Study shows how they fought back. | TribLIVE.com
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Deb Erdley

When Dr. Todd Wolynn published a YouTube video on his Kids Plus Pediatrics Facebook page touting the HPV vaccine as a cancer prevention tool, he had no idea he was opening the floodgates to a world of anti-vaccine internet warriors.

Wolynn, a pediatrician and the CEO of the practice with offices in Cranberry, Squirrel Hill and the Mon Valley, simply thought it was a great way to reach the families who bring more than 20,000 children to his three offices each year. It’s where millennials go to look for information, he said.

Initially, the video posted Sept. 15, 2017, worked well.

“Families began calling in and asking for the vaccine,” Wolynn said.

Then the attack began.

In an eight-day period, the video went viral as a group of well-organized anti-vaccine activists from 36 states and eight countries began to flood the site with comments questioning the efficacy and safety of the vaccine. They also logged negative reviews to Yelp and Google of the group that employs 20 physicians. Suddenly, Kids Plus, which had consistently earned four-star ratings, saw those ratings plummet to a fraction of a star.

Wolynn and Kids Plus communications manager Chad Hermann immediately launched a counter offensive, searching out their antagonists and demanding that Yelp and Google scrub the fraudulent reviews.

“It was eight straight days of 18-hour days,” Hermann said. “I read every one of the 10,000 comments.”

“People rallied to our defense. It became a cause célèbre,” Hermann said. “People started watching it and praising it and fighting back against the attackers. Over those eight days, we gained 1,000 followers on our Facebook page. People from all over the globe came.”

Digging deeper

In the 18 months since, they joined with the University of Pittsburgh Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health for a study of a random sample of their attackers, retweeted the original video repeatedly and put together a tool box for other health care providers faced with the prospect of battling a misinformation campaign.

To date, the video has logged more than 99,000 views. Wolynn and Hermann have taken to speaking at conferences across the country to educate health care providers about the need to fight back against misinformation that could leave the lives of children at risk.

“Providers are reluctant to fight back, afraid if they do they’ll become targets. But we have to,” Wolynn said. “We’re focused on keeping kids healthy and preventing disease whenever possible. In this age of social media disinformation, evidence-based recommendations from a trusted health care provider are more important than ever.”

Although vaccines have virtually wiped out many childhood diseases, a rising tide of reluctance to vaccinate children coupled with outbreaks of measles and mumps, childhood diseases once thought nearly eradicated, have many concerned. And as the World Health Organization ranked hesitancy to vaccinate among the top 10 global health threats of 2019, public health experts began to call for Facebook to censor anti-vaccine campaigns that use the platform to spread false information.

At Pitt, researchers joined Wolynn and Hermann for a first-ever deep dive into the public profiles of those who launched the attack on the pediatrics group.

Their research, published Thursday in the peer-reviewed journal Vaccine, suggested methods for health care providers to counter vaccine resistance among parents.

The study, which took about seven months, scrutinized a random sample of 197 individuals who posted attacks and explored their public profiles — who their friends were, how they communicated and interacted with them, their interests and their politics. Researchers found some were firmly in President Trump’s corner, while others were ardent supporters of Bernie Sanders. Although their reasons for posting varied from a resistance to government mandates to religious beliefs and suspicion of Big Pharma, Hermann said the one constant was their firm belief that they were in the right.

Working on the study were Beth Hoffman, a graduate student researcher at Pitt’s Graduate School of Public Health, and Dr. Brian Primack, director of Pitt’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health. They said they came away with valuable information.

They learned most commenters were mothers. And the sample included four distinct beliefs:

• those who emphasized suspicion about the scientific community and concerns about personal liberty;

• those who focused on natural and alternative remedies;

• those who felt vaccines were immoral; and

• those who suggested government conspiracies afoot in the vaccine community, including a small subset of posters that contended the polio virus never existed.

“Vaccines have become a victim of their own success,” Hoffman said.

Addressing specific concerns could help change some opinions.

“We want to understand vaccine-hesitant parents in order to give clinicians the opportunity to optimally and respectfully communicate with them about the importance of immunization,” Primack said.

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