‘It’s a first-world luxury’: from anti-vaxxers to tobacco, the fight for public health in a post-truth world

A health worker in Ethiopia, supporting routine immunisation and polio eradication activities in hard to reach and international border areas of Ethiopia. Source: Solomon Zeleke, from CCRDA/CORE Group

For decades the public has relied on scientists to improve their health and quality of life. But the post-truth world could put paid to all of that.

Public health is becoming a casualty of the post-truth era and it is leading to shorter life-expectancies and sicker communities, experts have warned.

Scientific research and recommendations, and even scientists themselves, are under frequent attack thanks to the rise of fake news, populist politics and the vehicle of social media.

Anti-vaccination campaigns ‘very scary’

One of the most prominent post-truth health movements is the anti-vaccination campaign.

Convener of the 15th World Congress on Public Health in Melbourne, Professor Helen Keleher, told SBS News campaigning against vaccinations was a “first-world luxury”.

“My first career was as a children’s nurse and we didn’t have a measles vaccination then and I saw children get that dreadful encephalopathy that many people with measles will develop and it’s fatal,” she said.

“I think people forget - same with [diseases like] diphtheria - these are really terrible life-threatening diseases for children and yet we have the means to eliminate these diseases and to give children a much better chance in life, and the peddling of denial of the value of vaccination to everybody is very dangerous and it’s not grounded in science.”

She said the anti-vaccination movement was linked with the rise in populist politics and was “very scary”.

“For families that live in impoverished countries, they are so welcoming of vaccination because they know it will save their children’s lives, and it does save children’s lives,” she said.

Professor Keleher was also highly critical of so-called celebrity wellness experts who have spoken out against vaccinations.

“It’s just rubbish, it’s absolute rubbish, so we need to counter that with the truth, we need to keep working on it,” she said.

“We also need to regulate more I think just putting the truth out there isn’t always enough, we need to regulate and certainly our government is doing that.”

WATCH: SBS's 'Jabbed' documentary


Big business defeating fact with post-truth tactics

Curtin University health policy professor, Mike Daube, said “harmful industries” were using post-truth and fake news techniques, particularly on social media, to promote messages that damaged public health.

“There’s nothing new about harmful industries trying to lie and mislead,” he told SBS News.

“The tobacco industry is the champion, they’ve done that for decades, but other industries are learning from them.

“They’re denying the evidence, they’re undermining science and scientists, they’re funding and biasing researchers, they’re using new media, new approaches, post-truth approaches to distract governments and communities from the action that needs to be taken. They’re pretending health concerns.”

The problem was even worse in third world and developing countries, Professor Daube said.

"In developing countries these major industries are promoting quite dishonest and misleading messages and they lie. Simple as that," he said.

"They lie and when they lie in a careful methodical, highly funded and sophisticated manner that can be very difficult for governments in developing countries to resist or oppose."

Professor Daube, who spoke at this week’s public health congress, said new and even long-standing health messages were in danger of being drowned out.

“Post-truth is harmful industries using every possible technique to get across misleading and often dishonest messages and I think we’re losing the battle,” he said.

“The use of new media, the use of new techniques – is another phase in the march and march of harmful industries.

“Health groups, health authorities by contrast are slow and that’s partly because we try to work off sound science, so we don’t just blurt out whatever we think of that’s going to be convenient, we’re careful and measured in what we say and we just don’t have the same resources.”

Professor Keleher said a speaker from the World Health Organisation warned the congress, which ends on Friday, the public health industry was in danger of being left behind with the rise of populist politics and fake news.

“We have to work in ways that we’ve not before and we have to understand that the technological revolution that we’re undergoing at the moment is actually much, much bigger than the 19th century industrial revolution and unless we pick up speed in health we will be left behind by these other political and populist movements that are taking over, and the outcome of that is that the health of people who will suffer,” she said.

“The very people who vote for populist politicians are the ones who are most at risk of poor health and early death.”

WATCH: Big tobacco makes a grab for government research


Falling life expectancy

Professor Keleher said there were very real concerns that the next generation of children could be the first to fail to outlive their parents.

“We’ve heard of the failing economy in Brazil, the recession they’re going through, the rising unemployment rate and that life expectancy is dropping,” she said.

“It happens and it could so easily happen in this country.

“We’re not making the great gains in quality of life that we might expect from a highly developed first world country.

“We have really terrible inequalities and they’re getting worse as unemployment rates rise, as people’s income drops and that’s the worrying part of it, as people’s income drops they lose hope.”

Professor Daube said he feared governments in Australia and around the world would return to a time when important decisions were not made in the interests of public health.

“My worry is that we’re going to go back to an era in which decision are made that are based on untruths, half-truths, misleading information and that, in some areas, could mean that we actually go back and reduce our life-expectancy again ,” he said.

“That would be a tragedy.

“I think in this post-truth era, governments are a bit frightened to take on the commercial interests and once that happens then some of the decisions are going to go the wrong way.”

Watch: Experts say young vulnerable to mental illness


Stay up to date with SBS NEWS

  • App
  • Subscribe
  • Follow
  • Listen
  • Watch