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Published March 2nd 2015

Study: How Talk of Measles Spread as Quickly as the Disease

From January 1 to January 31 of this year the CDC reported 102 confirmed cases of measles in the United States. The source of this outbreak has been traced back to Disneyland theme park in California.

In the year 2000, the measles virus was declared eradicated from the United States.

This meant that although U.S. residents remained at risk of transmission of measles brought into the country by travelers, the risk of continuous transmission within the U.S. was no longer present.

Thanks to a very high rate of vaccination of Americans against measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a disease that once infected an estimated 3 million Americans annually now had a median annual incidence of just 56 cases.The increase in vaccination of children resulted in the spawning of two frames of thought – the pro-vaccine parents and the anti-vaccine parents.


Some pro-vaxxers have accused anti-vaxxers of endangering their children – and society as a whole – by not supporting the vaccination of children.

The anti-vaxxers, though, shoot accusations right back at pro-vaxxers, claiming they are just giving in to the fear-mongering, and that these vaccines are actually more harmful than helpful.

So, how do these conversations play out online, and what can we learn from them?

The 2015 outbreak

Between January 1st and January 31st of this year, the CDC reported 102 confirmed cases of measles in the United States, traced back to the Disneyland theme park in California.

In all, there are 14 states that have been affected by the outbreak thus far, and if this infection rate were to remain steady, this outbreak would result in more measles cases than the country has seen in the last 10 years combined.


As a result, mentions of measles across the Internet during the month of January dwarfed mentions from before the outbreak.


December 2014


January 2015

Concerned parents across the country scrambled to learn more about this outbreak and how to protect their children.

The thirst for information is clearly demonstrated by the most mentioned topics online throughout January, shown below in the topic cloud.


In addition to information about measles and the vaccine, people online shared news stories to spread the word about the outbreak.


How conversations switch in tone

Mentions of the measles outbreak and the surrounding news stories reached around 21,000 for the month of January which, when compared to previous months, is an immense leap.

But something interesting happened the first week of February. The tone of the conversation completely changed.

The once informative conversation then turned into a debate on whether parents should have the right to choose to vaccinate their children. Attacks popped up against parents who took the anti-vax stance.

The passionate nature of the conversation resulted in debaters and politicians getting involved.

Politicians from all over the world took the opportunity to voice their opinions on the pro-vax versus anti-vax debate.

6 8

As a result, online mentions of the outbreak hit 36,000.

9In 1988, author Roald Dahl penned an essay imploring parents to vaccinate their children against measles.

He wrote of the devastating effects the measles virus had on his own daughter, Olivia, in 1962. Olivia succumbed to complications resulting from measles at the age of 7.

Roald Dahl’s plea fueled the online debate and the mentions continued to increase.


With politicians involved and Roald Dahl’s essay pulling at heartstrings, the topics discussed around the outbreak morphed, and the language surrounding it became more emotive, and the conversation quickly changed tone.


Defenders of both corners are now equipped with politicians in their corner who support their causes.

This created a new dynamic to this debate that shifted the attention away from children’s health and towards the political arena.


So how will the debate play out online? It’s hard to tell. But with conversations spreading as quickly as the disease, we’ll be monitoring it closely.

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