The wave of anti-vaccination superstitions reaches Bosnia

Anti-vaccination movements, lead by obscure “health gurus”, are increasinly visible in the Balkans. Some online media lend a helpful hand by spreading false information in exchange for precious "clicks and likes”.

Tijana Cvjeticanin
Tijana Cvjeticanin Istinomjer, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Source: Istinomjer
The wave of anti-vaccination superstitions reaches Bosnia - NewsMavens
Vaccine. Wikimedia Commons

Why this story matters:

Bosnia is still on the margins of the anti-vaccination trend gaining steam in the region. In neighboring Serbia and Croatia, it has already shaped into movements led by public figures and “natural healers” who rose from obscurity on the wings of anti-vaccine hysteria. Bosnia could shortly follow suit.

The main bogeyman in this narrative is autism, allegedly a side effect of the MMR vaccine (against measles, mumps, and rubella). This theory entered public discourse after a discredited 1998 study by Andrew Wakefield, which still prevails today despite lack of scientific evidence. 

In Bosnia and Herzegovina there are no advocacy groups requesting “freedom of choice” for the parents who won’t vaccinate their children, or celebrities campaigning against official health institutions and their policies. Yet. But the country is not -- pardon the pun -- immune to the growing trend.

The interactions on social media, which have been instrumental in spreading the anti-vaccination agenda, point to a growing number of BiH citizens turning to these sources for “medical” research. Online media are mostly responsible for triggering the vaccine scare by republishing sources from neighboring countries.

I’ve looked into one such case on a recently launched media fact-checking platform. In a single piece of online “journalism”, I found an overwhelming amount of misinformation, distortion of facts and flat-out lies presented as evidence supporting the autism theory. In fact, the myths were so thick and numerous, that this sole article required more than one debunking analysis.

The original content, published in 2013 on the “alternative medicine” site Natural News (whose owner calls himself a “Health Ranger” and claims expertise in everything from quantum physics to martial arts), was translated almost verbatim and published by a tabloid in Croatia as “breaking news” in 2016.

It is still making the rounds in Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian portals today, the latest version published about a month ago.

The article claims that two US institutions -- “Vaccine Court” (The Office of Special Masters of the US Court of Federal Claims) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- as well as the UK Ministry of Health, have all, in some form, “admitted” that MMR vaccine causes autism. The truth is nowhere close. All three institutions have consistently denied this claim.

The article also contains a mish-mash of misquotes from other media sources; official statements taken out of context, turned on their heads and presented as evidence; and fabricated “facts” which simply do not exist.

Once translated and published, the article has reached substantial number of readers. One of the Bosnian portals which republished it, has no less than 1,9 million Facebook followers -- a number beyond impressive for a country of less than 4 million. And, as it said in one of its Facebook posts:

“We need the likes, so please bring them and get others to do it as well. Because, as they say, there is no free lunch.”

Indeed, the hyped titles with the inevitable all caps are designed to deliver clicks and likes:  “BREAKING: Court admits that vaccine causes AUTISM!” and other variations such as: “FINALLY CONFIRMED!”, “A MILESTONE IN THE FIGHT FOR THE TRUTH!”, “COURT CONFIRMED… SAVE YOUR CHILD FROM THIS HORRIBLE ILLNESS!”. Fabricated revelations like these have been popping up on social media for a year now.

And, while they certainly do their part in paying for “lunch”, they do so at the expense of accuracy, professionalism and, most disturbingly, people’s own health and safety.

Details from the story:

  • Two articles published on the portal called “Natural News” on September 3, 2013 and Septemver 8, 2014, have falsely stated that several US and UK institutions “confirmed” the link between vaccination and autism.
  • A portal from Croatia merged them into one “breaking news” article three years later.
  • The content has so far been republished by nearly 20 other media sources from Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia.
  • The viral spreading of similar misinformation has been on a stark rise in the past few years, particularly in the neighboring Serbia and Croatia.
  • Several movements against vaccination are already afoot in the region.
  • In Bosnia, it has already been reported that immunization rates are dropping in recent years due to the spread of "vaccine scare".
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