Image credit: Andrianocz (Dreamstime.com)
Anti-vaccine activists and other conspiracy theorists recently accused media organizations (such as NBC and CNN) for airing a “faked” image of a baby with measles rash during a segment about the founder of Nurses Who Vaccinate. They claimed the image had been digitally altered by the media because they found a stock image without the rashes.
In reality, the stock image existed in two versions (one with rashes and the other one without), and media had just gone for the one with the rashes. Thus, conspiracy theories and other blanket anti-media activists created a storm in a tea cup, highlighting their own anti-science bias.
To be sure, using a stock photo is a bit lazy and the media could have taken an image from CDC that depicted a real person with real measles. However, it is factually false to claim that the media somehow faked an image of a baby with measles because they merely used a preexisting stock image without deceptively altering it.
Belief in medical conspiracies is widespread in the United States and they are held for a wide range of reasons. Luckily, medical doctors, scientists and other science advocates are spreading facts and critical thinking about the world in order to help teach people how debunk any conspiracy theory.
What is measles?
Measles is a dangerous viral disease that can easily be spread via respiratory droplets. The average number of new infections each person with measles will cause is typically between 12-18, but it varies. In fact, measles is so contagious that it is possible to catch it even after 2 hours after the person with the infection has left an enclosed room.
Before vaccines, half a million cases and 500 deaths were reported to public health authorities every year. However, the true number of cases is estimated to have been 3 to 4 million per year since not all cases gets reported. Epidemics happened around every other year or every third year.
The vaccine was licensed in 1963 and the number of new cases per year dropped by 95% and the cycle of epidemics ended. Scientific studies have found that the measles vaccine has an efficacy of 98% if all doses are given and provides lifelong immunity. Large-scale reviews of published scientific papers have found that measles vaccination is generally safe and severe side effects are astronomically rare.
In 2004, only 37 cases were reported. Yet, due to anti-vaccine activism, this great public health achievement would not last.
Current measles outbreaks caused by anti-vaccine activism
Over the years, anti-vaccine activism has had an impact on vaccination rates. By spreading unfounded and unscientific fears about vaccines, anti-vaccine activists have managed to scare people into not vaccinating. With the help of social media filter bubbles, and conspiracy theories, and social media bots, more and more parents are turning away from vaccines. This has led to measles coming back, causing outbreaks and harming children.
During recent years, there have been many measles outbreaks due to poor vaccine coverage, anti-vaccine misinformation and imported cases form Europe or Israel spreading in unvaccinated communities.
According to the CDC, there are currently nine hotspots of measles activity: Rockland County in New York State, New York City, Michigan, New Jersey, Butte County in California, LA County in California, Sacramento County in California, Georgia, and Maryland.
The number of reported cases so far in 2019 (between January 1 and May 3) is 764. This is more than the number of reported cases during all of 2018, which is around 372.
The NBC segment
On April 15, 2019, NBC aired a segment (cache) where a journalist was interviewing the founder (Melody Anne Butler) of an organization called Nurses Who Vaccinate. They talked about the impact of anti-vaccine activism and what public health professionals could do to counter it.
This is just a stock photo (see below), but anti-vaccine activists jumped on this in an effort to demonize and discredit the media. The claimed that the NBC had taken a stock photo where the baby does not have a rash and added the rashes themselves in an effort to persuade people to get vaccinated. This, of course, has nothing to do with the efficacy and safety of vaccines or even the content of the segment. Some anti-vaccine activists will jump on any opportunity to demonize public health efforts related to vaccines.
The image was not deceptively manipulated by the media (stock photo exists in two versions)
It turns out that NBC did not themselves fake, manipulate, photoshop or otherwise deceptively digitally alter the stock photo. This is because the stock photo in question exists in two different versions on the Dreams Time stock photo website. One version (cache) is of a baby without any rash and there is another version (cache) of the same baby but with a rash.
The person who created the images in question has probably themselves edited the image without the rash to add them on the body of the baby. This is because a medical health professional would never hold a baby with such extensive rashes from an infectious diseases without gloves due to the risk of spreading the virus. So while the image of the baby with extensive rash is a stock photo and not real, it was not something that was done by NBC or any other media organization for nefarious purposes. The username of the person who submitted the images to Dreams Time is Andrianocz, but it is not known if this individual is the original creator. This set of stock photos also occur on other stock photo websites.
The description for the image with the baby with a rash states that it would be used to illustrate how rubella or measles could look like. Since it is a stock photo, we know that it will not be a perfect illustration. It is quite common for stock images of science and medicine to be highly inaccurate and even hilarious. For examples, molecular biologists are often depicted with a set of tweeters and a large-scale model of a double helix, chemists are often seen with flasks of strange blue liquids, genetically modified vegetables are pricked with multiple syringes with colorful liquids and so on.
The CDC has a page with images of adults and children with measles that are scientifically and medically accurate. Perhaps the media could be criticized for using a stock photo instead of checking the CDC website for highly accurate photos of people with a measles rash. However, the claim that the media (such as NBC or CNN) themselves faked an image of a child with measles is not true. The stock photo exists in two versions. The media used the one that illustrates a rash, while anti-vaccine activists and other conspiracy theories relied on the version without a rash. They naively and incorrectly though that the media had digitally altered the image in a deceptive and misleading way. That is factually inaccurate.
The conspiracy-mongering of anti-vaccine activists
It is not surprising that many anti-vaccine activists decided to spread this conspiracy theory. It fits neatly in their worldview that wrongly depicts the media as somehow corrupted by the government and/or large multinational pharmaceutical companies.
However, it is disturbing that other people who are not necessarily anti-vaccine (some are) but exists inside the larger anti-media, conspiracy or counterculture spaces has chosen to push this nonsense conspiracy theory as well. For instance, there are threads on Reddit about this fake news story on communities such as r/KotakuInAction and r/The_Donald. While media does deserve a lot of criticism for their flawed handling of facts, it is a very bad idea to become an unwitting supporter of anti-vaccine misinformation just because you dislike the media and are biased to fall for just about any negative argument against the media.
It also allows them to portray the current outbreak, for which they are to a large degree responsible for, as something that was just allegedly faked by the media. The message that the anti-vaccine activists are trying to push is that measles is just a harmless childhood adventure and nothing to worry about. In particular, they anti-vaccine activists wants us to ignore their dangerous messages of pseudoscience and quackery. It is a way for them to try to absolve themselves of responsibility for the current measles resurgence in the United States.
It will not work, as there are scientists, doctors and other science advocates on the Internet who tirelessly work to disprove anti-scientific claims made by anti-vaccine activists using critical thinking and solid scientific evidence.