Pediatricians rally to dispel medical misinformation on TikTok

Rebekah Robinson

 

A group of pediatricians has rallied behind the hashtag #PedsSquad on TikTok to dispel medical misinformation for families. When the CDC released the long-awaited recommendation for Covid-19 vaccines for children under five years old over the weekend, the doctors celebrated the updated guidelines with additional information for families about vaccinating their children. The nine doctors alternated with messages that they felt would make a massive difference to families and that “the benefits of vaccinating young children outweigh the risk.” The #PedsSquad shared that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were safe with “zero cases of myocarditis reported in either trial,” to the tune of Lizzo’s summer hit “About Damn Time.” 

That hasn’t stopped online trolls from targeting physicians on their social media accounts with hate messages and other forms of online harassment. 

Take Dr. Zachary Rubin, who over the weekend posted a tweet about his father, also a pediatrician, finally being able to administer vaccines to children, “who will be one of the first [to get] the #covidvaccine for kids under 5 in our county. I’m so proud of his tireless efforts to help protect all.” 

The tweet was pulled apart by conspiracy theorists and anti-vax supporters with messages like calling for the revocation of his license, calling him and his father murderers, and that administering the vaccines is “inhumane, immoral and evil.” The barrage of threatening messages led Rubin, part of the #PedsSquad, to share with his followers that he’s taking a break from social media platforms like Twitter. 

“It’s a way to wait for the trolls to calm down,” Dr. Rubin said to me in a conversation, but he worries about censorship with this critical health update.  

He’s drawn to the work because he enjoys providing education to people who need it and the community it’s opened up for him. “Parents with young children and people who are immunocompromised have felt left behind and don’t have any guidance or any kind of voice. So, I don’t see myself necessarily stopping anytime soon when there are several people, many people out there still need advice and help,” Dr. Rubin said. 

Dr. Todd Wolynn, another physician in the #PedsSquad, thinks about how physicians could be better supported as they tackle medical misinformation online. He’s also co-founded Shots Heard, which shares resources for medical professionals to prepare for and defend themselves after medical misinformation attacks and that we’ve also previously reported on. 

Social media misinformation has real-world consequences that have continued to erode confidence in the healthcare profession. “My whole job is behavior change, and yet the most powerful tool that has a behavior change, we somehow feel it’s beneath us, and we’re uncomfortable using it,” said Dr. Wolynn. He believes that more healthcare providers should receive training to use social media more, despite the stigma attached. For better or worse, that’s where people ask questions and look for information. “If you’re not there to answer their questions, it’s going to get answered by somebody.”

We’ve been reporting on the harassment doctors face online for years. Check out Isobel Cockerell’s piece from 2019, when she covered how physicians had formed an online “digital cavalry” to swarm and silence anti-vaccine trolls 

IN GLOBAL NEWS:

Bank customers in China’s Henan province say the health code system is being abused: when they tried to withdraw their savings, their health codes spontaneously turned red. It came after three local banks in the central province froze as much as $1.5 billion worth of deposits, causing hundreds of clients to travel to the city of Zhegzhou to try to retrieve their money. They found that when they tried to scan their health QR code at the city’s shops and public transport stations, their code turned red — indicating they had been infected with the virus. Some were then forced into quarantine or detained by local authorities. On Wednesday, five officials were punished for abusing the system, according to state media. The news about the health codes has gone viral on China’s social media platforms. “Sooner or later, this sort of thing is going to happen to us all. Wake up, people,” one user wrote. “National pandemic prevention policy has been reduced to a private weapon,” said another. “This is the height of expansion of power, ideological decay, and evil influence.”

Military doctors in Myanmar are helping the country’s notoriously brutal military — known as the Tatmadaw — buttress the narrative that they have done a good job handling the pandemic. Doctors wrote a letter to the editors of an academic journal claiming that since the 2021 coup, the military junta had undertaken “timely containment measures” to flatten the curve and reduce transmission. The letter neglected to mention that tens of thousands of doctors had gone on strike in resistance to the junta, meaning patients were turned away from hospitals. Meanwhile, volunteers who once pitched in to stop the virus’s spread, found themselves fleeing the crackdown, or else joining the armed resistance. The letter also made no mention of the fact that the coup disrupted vaccine supply to the country, while Salai Maung Taing San, a prominent Myanmar politician and doctor, said the military had “weaponized Covid-19, allowing it to kill and maim in hopes of using healthcare as leverage to break people’s resistance.” 

A national incident has been declared in the U.K. after traces of the polio virus was detected in London sewage pipes. The U.K.’s health security agency said it was likely there has been some spread of the virus in north and east London, but that no associated cases of paralysis had yet been discovered. The National Health Service’s chief nurse encouraged parents of children under five — whose vaccine schedules may have been interrupted by the pandemic — to make sure they were vaccinated. “If polio makes a comeback in places where it’s been long eliminated thanks to anti-vaxxers and barriers to accessing routine immunizations, I’m going to be at risk for a head injury with all the head desk-ing that will ensue,” virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen tweeted in response to the news. We have reported on damaging false rumors about the polio vaccine that have pervaded for decades and have had devastating effects in today’s Pakistan. 

WHAT WE’RE READING:

  • As the U.S. rolls out vaccines for young kids, the Washington Post looks to Cuba, which has become a pioneer in the vaccine program for children. Most very young Cubans got their shots months ago. Many were vaccinated using a homegrown jab called Soberana 02, which is also being manufactured in Iran. Cuban scientists say Soberana gives up to 90% protection — though the research has not yet been approved by the WHO. The Post article discusses how the vaccines could represent the culmination of Fidel Castro’s ambitions for the country as a biotech pioneer.  

This newsletter is curated by Coda’s senior reporter Isobel Cockerell

Tracking coronavirus disinformation from around the world

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