Russia’s Ministry of Health is proposing legislation that would block public discussions about vaccines that could be perceived as discouraging people from getting vaccinated. According to RT:
The draft legislation envisages punishment for those violating the ban, although the nature of the punitive measures is yet unknown. The ministry’s initiative has already received support from the Russian consumer watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor, which has also expressed its concerns about the “global rise of the anti-vaxxers’ lobby.”1
This action by the government of Russia appears to endorse censorship of free speech and public discussion of information that is critical of government vaccine policy. At the same time, influential U.S. government officials have placed pressure on major social media platforms such as Amazon, Facebook and Google to eliminate content that may be perceived as criticizing government vaccine policy and questioning vaccine science or the lack of informed consent protections in state mandatory vaccination laws.
Current U.S. vaccine policy directs doctors to give all children 69 doses of 16 vaccines between the day of birth and age 182 and also directs adults 19 years and older to get a dose of influenza vaccine every year until the year of death; a dose of Tdap vaccine followed by a Td vaccination every 10 years; two doses of herpes zoster (shingles) vaccine at age 50 or older; a dose of pneumococcal vaccine at age 65 or older; two or three doses of HPV vaccine depending upon age and sex; plus one or two doses of MMR vaccine (if born during or after 1957) and two doses of varicella zoster vaccine (if born after 1980) depending upon age and if there is no documentation of prior vaccination or infection.3According to federal vaccine policy guidelines, almost no health condition is considered to be a contraindication to vaccination or reason to provide a child or adult with a medical exemption to vaccination.4
U.S. Congressman Tells Google, Facebook, Amazon to “Act Responsibly”
On Feb. 14, 2019, U.S. Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), chair of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, sent letters to the CEOs of Google and Facebook. Rep. Schiff wrote: “As a Member of Congress who is deeply concerned about declining vaccination rates, I am requesting additional information on the steps that you currently take to provide medically accurate information on vaccinations to your users, and to encourage you to consider additional steps you can take to address this growing problem.”5
He added: “I was pleased to see YouTube’s recent announcement that it will no longer recommend videos that violate its community guidelines, such as conspiracy theories or medically inaccurate videos, and encourage further action to be taken related to vaccine misinformation.”5
On Mar. 1, 2019, Rep. Schiff followed up with a similar letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos stating: “As the largest online marketplace in the world, Amazon is in a unique position to shape consumption. The algorithms which power social media platforms and Amazon’s recommendations are not designed to distinguish quality information from misinformation or misleading information and, as a result, harmful anti-vaccine messages have been able to thrive and spread. The consequences are particularly troubling for public health issues.”6
Rep. Schiff continued: “I am concerned by the report that Amazon accepts paid advertising that contains deliberate misinformation about vaccines; promoting these advertisements as suggested content ahead of intended search results. Every online platform, including Amazon, must act responsibly and ensure that they do not contribute to this growing public health catastrophe.”6
U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar has publicy spoken about “social media conspiracy groups” in the U.S. as the “source of widespread doubt about vaccine science” and the growing trend of “vaccine hesitancy.”7 8 This has served to place additional pressure on private companies operating public forums on the Internet, including Amazon, Facebook and Google, to take steps to severely restrict or ban online conversations and information that criticizes vaccine science and government vaccine policy.
U.S. Senator Asks Facebook to Quickly “Tamp Down” on “Anti-Vaccine” Content
On June 18, 2019, U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), a senior member of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, issued a press release entitled “Menendez Questions Facebook on Dangerous Anti-vaccine Content.” Senator Menendez announced that he had sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg “questioning misleading anti-vaccine content that remains widely available on the social media platform months after Facebook announced it would no longer allow ads or recommendations promoting anti-vaccine material. The false content has contributed to a measles outbreak and public health crisis affecting thousands of families across the country.”9
In the letter, Sen. Menendez told Zukerberg: “Given the serious risk to public health, Facebook must do more to quell this dangerous content. While we recognize that removing such dangerous content will not take place overnight, we are alarmed that it is taking Facebook over two months to implement its own policy during the ongoing public health crisis directly related to anti-vaccine rhetoric. To that end, I ask that Facebook increase its efforts to tamp down on anti-vaccine content and I look forward to hearing from you on your progress.”9
In the U.S., the federal government makes national vaccine policy by recommending children and adults receive certain vaccines. State governments have the authority to take those federal recommendations and turn them into state public health law, historically requiring certain federally recommended vaccines for children to attend school. Although all 50 states in the U.S. have passed laws mandating that children receive certain vaccines, state governments also have the authority to allow exemptions to vaccination for medical, religious and conscientious beliefs and different states allow different types of exemptions.10
Proposed Vaccine Law in Russia Would Affect 1998 Informed Consent Legislation
Deputy Health Minister Tatiana Yakovleva justified the Russian government’s proposed ban on public discussions about vaccination noting that the high number and diversity of anti-vaccination websites, social media groups, religious sects and some media outlets have become channels for relaying “unreliable” information that “undermines public trust in vaccination,” thus rendering government-led vaccination efforts ineffective.1
There are currently numerous proposals in Russia to enact laws that would mandate vaccines, making it more difficult or even eliminating the right for parents to exercise voluntary, informed consent to vaccination for their children. This would represent a change from vaccine laws in Russia in the past two decades. According to an article in The Moscow Times last year, “[I]n 1998, legislation was passed that required parents’ consent before any medical procedure—including vaccinations—is done.”11 12
In response to vaccine mandate proposals, the Russian Orthodox Church recently released a statement voicing concern and urging the Russian government not to pass them. The statement was written by the Patriarchal Commission on the Family—an advisory board to the Church. One of the key points of the statement had to do with preserving parental rights to make medical and health care decisions for their children. It reads as follows:
First and foremost, concern for the welfare of children, including their health, is entrusted by God to their parents. The state and society should respect the priority of parental rights. It is well known that, along with the risk of infectious diseases, there is also a risk of serious complications—even death—as a result of prophylactic vaccination. In such a situation, it is the patient himself who should make the choice. In the case of a child, the parents should make the choice . No one has the right to make this choice for them.11
Another key point of the statement defends freedom of scientific inquiry and freedom of speech regarding medical interventions and use of pharmaceutical products, emphasizing the evolutionary nature of science and warning against “attempts to absolutize any medical theories.” It reads:
The church does not evaluate the effectiveness and risk of side effects of certain specific medical interventions and drugs. Such an assessment is the subject of research based on scientific standards of evidence and free academic discussion of specialists. At the same time, “The Church warns against attempts to absolutize any medical theories,” recalling that scientific views are developed and are always open to valid criticism, which may well lead to correction and, sometimes, revision of familiar ideas.11
1 Crusade against anti-vaxxers: Russian Health ministry. RT Apr. 7, 2019.
2 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recommended Child and Adolescent Immunization Schedule for ages 18 years or younger, United States, 2019. CDC.gov Feb. 5, 2019
3 CDC. Recommended Adult Immunization Schedule for ages 19 years or older, United States, 2019. CDC.gov Feb. 5, 2019.
4 Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Contraindications and Precautions to Vaccination. CDC.gov May 10, 2019.
5 Press Release. Schiff Sends Letter to Google, Facebook Regarding Anti-Vaccine Misinformation. Congressman Adam Schiff Feb. 14, 2019.
6 Press Release. Schiff Sends Letter to Amazon CEO Regarding Anti-Vaccine Misinformation. Congressman Adam Schiff Mar. 1, 2019.
7 Morrison C. HHS Secretary Azar blames ‘complacency’ for falling vaccination rates.Washington Examiner May 21, 2019.
8 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Remarks on the Importance of Vaccination. HHS.gov May 21, 2019.
9 Press Release. Menendez Questions Facebook on Dangerous Anti-vaccine Content. Senator Bob Menendez June 18, 2019.
10 National Vaccine Information Center. State Law and Vaccine Requirements. NVIC.org.
11 Patriarchal Commission on the Family. Russian Orthodox Church Officially Opposes Compulsory Vaccinations of Children. Russian Faith May 26, 2019.
12 Gershkovich E. Russia Has a Vaccination Problem. The Moscow Times Sept. 28, 2018.