Facebook groups of people like anti-vaccinators, also known as anti-vaxxers, are spreading propaganda so dangerous it’s resulting in actual deaths. Amid a particularly gruesome flu season, a 4-year-old boy named Najee from Colorado has died of the flu after anti-vaxxers pressured his mother not to get him the treatment he needed.
Najee’s mother had spent weeks going in and out of the hospital with another one of her children who had tested positive for the flu, and Najee was the only one who hadn’t yet gotten sick. That’s when his mother turned to social media. Specifically, she joined a Facebook group she had joined called "Stop Mandatory Vaccination."
The group, like many others that operate around health conspiracy theories, spreads propaganda about vaccination and incorrect health information, specifically to parents. It also has 139,000 members, so it's reach is quite substantial. When this particular mother went to the group seeking help for her sick child, who had a fever and a seizure, she mentioned that she hadn’t gone to get the Tamiflu prescription given to her by a doctor — the prescription was meant for her child and everyone else in the household too. Among the 45 comments to her post, medical attention was highly discouraged.
Among other comments in the Facebook group, the natural “cures” the group members consulted her on ranged from Vitamin C and lavender, to breastmilk, thyme, elderberry, and peppermint oil. According to NBC News, the group members who commented on the mother’s post mentioned all kinds of resources and solutions like these and none of which included filling the prescription and taking medical advice from a real doctor.
Apparently, the Colorado Department of Health said they were unable to verify if the child had been vaccinated for the flu at all. Najee was hospitalized and died four days later, according to the family's GoFundMe page.
"I'm hurting so bad right now and so is his dad and brothers. Our whole family is hurting and it feels like we failed him because we did what we had to do,” the mother told 11 News.
This scenario is more common than you’d think. Facebook is home to many propaganda groups that push completely false information and conspiracy theories about vaccinations and medication on scared, vulnerable people seeking help. Just like the lack of regulation around political propaganda, Facebook has come under fire for not monitoring dangerous information spread in anti-vaxxer groups like this one.
Anti-vaccination propaganda started decades ago with claims that getting the MMR vaccine could be linked to a new kind of autism. This claim took off. Since then, anti-vaxxers have — with very little information to back it up — run rampant theorizing about the health problems that vaccines cause. All of those have been widely disproven. Still, all these years later, hesitancy or refusal to get vaccines is one of the biggest threats to global health, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
According to WHO, vaccinations against the flu prevents 2-3 million deaths a year — a rising statistic depending on further global coverage of vaccines. "Vaccine hesitancy – the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines – threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases," the organization reports.
With Facebook groups as a tool to spread their so-called “gospel,” anti-vaxxers are using the social media platform for everything from convincing other parents not to vaccinate their kids to crowdfunding for huge anti-vaccine billboards. Facebook has allowed all of this, despite insurmountable evidence that anti-vaxxers are doing damage to people’s health. While many have posed it as a pro-vaccination or anti-vaccination “debate,” the fact is that there’s too much proof that refusal to get vaccines is harmful in the long-run, and makes people with weaker immune systems more susceptible.
Facebook had promised last year it would do its best to limit the reach and influence that anti-vaccination Facebook groups have, but it’s unclear why they allow them to exist at all when they’re actively putting people in danger. “This is a tragedy and our thoughts are with his family and loved ones. We don’t want vaccine misinformation on Facebook, which is why we’re working hard to reduce it everywhere on the platform, including in private groups,” said a Facebook spokesperson about this case.
Currently, the family is using a GoFundMe page to help cover the medical expenses for Najee. It’s still unclear if Facebook will follow through with the plans it clearly needs to stop completely preventable deaths like this in the future.