When the media gets science wrong: the deadly measles epidemic in Serbia

There is a resurgence of a once forgotten disease in the Balkans: measles. The first victim in Serbia is a 30-year-old Belgrade man who died from complications caused by measles, highlighting a crisis blamed on lower vaccination rates – and unethical media coverage.

The man was one of 1,719 cases of measles registered in Serbia since October 2017, according to a recent report from the Serbian Institute for Public Health.


THE BALKAN ANTI-VACCINATION MOVEMENT 

The anti-vaccination (anti-vax) movement is a recent phenomenon in the Balkans. It swept over from the West, stoked by the infamous and now discredited Lancet article that wrongly linked the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine to autism. Here the idea found a fertile soil, together with New Ageism, post-modernistic hype with a relativistic attitude to any truth – including scientific – and an enthusiastic embracement of “natural” products.

In addition, reliance on the internet as a source of information and a wide use of electronic social networking made anti-vaxxers more efficient in framing the public discussion than the rigid and sluggish medical services.

And, in a poor country with plenty of media, the only imperative is to survive. Means are almost irrelevant. Dramatic warnings about pseudo-scientific and fake threats such as chemtrails, HAARP, and killer vaccines sell newspapers and draw online clicks. This is also encouraged by the regime and its state-sponsored media because it turns the attention away from the gloomy economic situation and real-life social and economic problems.

There are no legal or ethical sanctions for promoting junk science, false information or disturbance of public by disseminating unfounded fears. After years of painful and unjust political and economic transition, people do not trust anyone and are generally resigned and dissatisfied.

“Any authority is treated with almost paranoid suspicion. What suffers, as a result, are sound scientific facts and public health,” says Zoran Radovanović, a Serbian epidemiologist.

“Due to recent wars in former Yugoslavia, xenophobia is a fertile soil for spreading conspiracy theories. Consequently, the population is inclined to eagerly read news on corrupt scientists, Big Pharma – ‘pharmacomafia’ – in particular, as well as any ‘revelation’ on suspected plots,” says Radovanović. “The media cannot avoid the responsibility for spreading scientific misinformation and junk science. However, the real culprit is the system that set up the stage.”

LOST APPETITE FOR THE RATIONAL

The most widespread and stubbornly maintained urban legend is that the MMR vaccine leads to autism. Scientific arguments on the lack of any causal relationship between the two events simply do not enter the anti-vaxxers’ mind frame.

People are also frightened of a variety of other substances, which are often more prevalent in foods we commonly consume than in vaccines. But manipulation of statistics and data are anti-vaxxers’ favorite means of impressing people.

Meanwhile, specialized science journalism failed to reach the hearts and minds of people. And high-profile, general-purpose journalism, including the elite investigative journalists of this country, is now strongly infested with a tendency to ignore, misunderstand, undervalue, and sometimes even demonize science and scientific method in general. And this, of course, reflects negatively on media coverage of vaccinations and evidence-based medicine in general.

“In the public arena, unscientific, false approach is much more present, as compared to science-based information,” says Radovanović. “There are several competent and responsible scientific writers in Serbia. Theoretically, they have some opportunities to be read or heard.” But, he says, the small number of media for the popularization of science have a negligible impact on the general public. “Even in urban settings only a few percentage of people ever heard of them.”

And, as far as general media go, few entertain responsible scientific journalism.

For a small, but a very active community of science journalists and scientists strongly engaged in public outreach it is really difficult, bordering on impossible, to “vaccinate” (pun intended!) the public against misconceptions regarding vaccination, especially in the face of a highly organized and well-funded, supported anti-vaccination campaign. Apparently, designations such as “alternative facts”, “post-truth” and “dishonesty on an industrial scale” are no longer confined to the political arena.

“Science journalism is currently done by enthusiasts. It is necessary to improve its status and capacities,” says Janković. “In a society that values science less and less and is at the same time dependent on the complex technological infrastructure heavily dependent on science, among other things, it is imperative that science journalism is restored to its rightful place as soon as possible.”

“And this is not just to promote nice and cool science. We also badly need a critical filter in evaluating the processes of science and their ethical dimensions, since scientific achievements can, as we all know too well, also be horribly abused or perverted.”

The current measles outbreak seems to have improved media coverage of these issues in particular, at least in the short term.

“I’d say that, for the time being, the measles epidemic makes a ‘better’ story than the imagined horrors of vaccination,” says Srdja Janković, an immunologist and author of the science radio show Solaris. “But I fear it is just a part of the usual media cycle, and not the sign of any real improvement in understanding rational priorities. Also, too much sensationalism can – and will – become a boomerang in the long run.”


Article by Milica Momcilovic 
Serbia, 6 February 2018

 

 

 


Photograph Caption: Blic Daily – A group of 270 parents filed criminal charges against 43 public figures and celebrity anti-vaxxers who encourage parents not to vaccinate children.


THE WFSJ BOARD ON THE BLOG

This article is part of the WFSJ Board Members on the blog series. Every week one of our Board Members will post a blog article on their experience with science journalism in their country or region.