Online conspiracy theories and other unscientific claims may hurt efforts to fight Zika virus, a new study has found.

More and more social media users are exposed to different claims about health issues, particularly Zika virus. Such information, which is widely available to the public, may weaken future programs that aim to prevent further spread of the disease.

Vaccine Fear

In particular, there is a great chance people may refuse to receive Zika vaccinations once they become available.

Even if the development of Zika vaccine is still in its early phases, people have already cultivated feelings of concern regarding the success of future immunization campaigns.

Uncertain Claims

There have been many issues associated with Zika virus. An example is the rise of microcephaly alongside the viral outbreak. For months, the neurological anomaly, which is characterized by abnormally small heads during birth, have been associated with Zika virus. However, it was only recently that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was able to confirm a link.

Aside from microcephaly, Zika virus has also been associated with a rare paralysis disorder called Guillain-Barré Syndrome.

Making matters worse are unscientific claims and conspiracy theories that have been circulating on the Web.

Such issues together with the power of social media may have lingering effects on people's thoughts.

"Once people have made up their minds about something, it's hard for them to change their opinions," says lead author Mark Dredze from Johns Hopkins University. He adds that it would be surprising to know that these social media posts would produce no impact and that he can't imagine people choosing healthier choices after being exposed to these claims.

Tracking Twitter

To investigate, the research team monitored Twitter posts as they happen. Such method gave the authors an insight into what people are talking about online at a particular given time.

All in all, the team was able to track 140,000 tweets from Jan. 1 to April 29, 2016. The tweets were identified by using the keywords "Zika" and "vaccine."

The researchers were also able to determine a few more conspiracy theories that social media users have been talking about. One is that microcephaly is caused by the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. Another one is that drug firms are pointing to Zika so that future vaccines they manufacture would sell like hotcakes.

Study co-author David Broniatowski from George Washington University says they were able to successfully monitor Zika conversations rapidly using their method. He thinks that this technique may also help public health officials counteract the negative effects of these conspiracy theories.

Using The Same Approach To Promote Public Health Programs

The scientists think that public health officials may also use social media monitoring to keep track and respond quickly to inaccurate claims that could hinder the success of future health efforts. Authorities may do so in real-time, making the action particularly timely and relevant.

The team also believes that it is very crucial for public health officials to act on issues as quickly as possible - to debunk false claims and address people's worries as they arise. The method of going to social media to do just that is effective and cuts a lot of time and effort to come up with favorable results.

The study is published in the journal Vaccine.

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