Have the Russians weaponized measles?

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Biological warfare offers an unparalleled opportunity for enemies of the US to terrorize and kill Americans.

According to Wikipedia:

Biological warfare (BW) — also known as germ warfare — is the use of biological toxins or infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi with the intent to kill or incapacitate humans, animals or plants as an act of war.

The use of biological weapons is prohibited under customary international humanitarian law, as well as a variety of international treaties. The use of biological agents in armed conflict is a war crime.

The limiting factor in biological warfare is not the number of agents; there are many excellent candidates that could be used to wipe out our population. To date the limiting factor has been the ability to weaponize those agents.

Anti-vaxxers, Russia is trying to Make America Sick Again. Don’t help them!

The primary difficulty is not the production of the biological agent, as many biological agents used in weapons can often be manufactured relatively quickly, cheaply and easily. Rather, it is the weaponization, storage and delivery in an effective vehicle to a vulnerable target that pose significant problems.

But what if it were much, much easier? What if you didn’t need to manufacture the agent, weaponize it, store it and find an appropriate method of dispersal? What if all you needed to do was convince Americans not to vaccinate against it?

Unless you have been living under a rock, you are undoubtedly aware that Russia under Vladimir Putin has been engaged in a multi-faceted disinformation campaign designed to cause chaos in the American political system, enable the election of Russia friendly politicians, and sow discord in the international alliances that restrict Russian aggression. It has been successful beyond Putin’s wildest imagination, with the election of Donald Trump — Russia’s candidate — to the Presidency. And it was all done without firing a shot. All it took was the theft of private information, weaponized by mastery of Facebook and Twitter.

But what if you wanted to go beyond a wholesale takeover of the political system of the US and actually kill Americans? All you’d need is the weaponization of misinformation about vaccines and disease, and scourges believed controlled in the US would come roaring back.

What if anti-vaxxers — so desperate to believe that their ignorance and conspiracy theories mark them as enpowered, independent thinkers — are nothing more than easily controlled pawns in an effort to weaken the US? It’s not as unlikely as you might think.

Indeed, US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been investigating it. The paper Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Bots and Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate was published in the American Journal of Public Health in October 2018:

We report the results of a retrospective observational study assessing the impact of bots and trolls on online vaccine discourse on Twitter. Using a set of 1 793 690 tweets collected from July 14, 2014, through September 26, 2017, we quantified the impact of known and suspected Twitter bots and trolls on amplifying polarizing and antivaccine messages.

This analysis is supplemented by a qualitative study of #VaccinateUS — a Twitter hashtag designed to promote discord using vaccination as a political wedge issue. #VaccinateUS tweets were uniquely identified with Russian troll accounts linked to the Internet Research Agency — a company backed by the Russian government specializing in online influence operations.

Thus, health communications have become “weaponized”: public health issues, such as vaccination, are included in attempts to spread misinformation and disinformation by foreign powers. In addition, Twitter bots distributing malware and commercial content (i.e., spam) masquerade as human users to distribute antivaccine messages. A full 93% of tweets about vaccines are generated by accounts whose provenance can be verified as neither bots nor human users yet who exhibit malicious behaviors. These unidentified accounts preferentially tweet antivaccine misinformation.

They found:

Russian trolls and sophisticated Twitter bots post content about vaccination at significantly higher rates than does the average user. Content from these sources gives equal attention to pro- and antivaccination arguments. This is consistent with a strategy of promoting discord across a range of contro- versial topics — a known tactic employed by Russian troll accounts. Such strategies may undermine the public health: normalizing these debates may lead the public to question long-standing scientific consensus regarding vaccine efficacy… We recently found that this strategy was effective for propagating news articles through social media in the context of the 2015 Disneyland measles outbreak.

This is not Russia’s first foray into disinformation campaigns about disease. As the accompanying editorial in the American Journal of Public Health notes:

Consider, for example, Russia’s active measures campaign in the mid-1980s to disseminate propaganda that the AIDS virus was unleashed on the world by the United States as a biological weapon. As an individual campaign, it successfully spread thousands of false stories; its reach was limited only by a lack of human resources to conduct active measures. Today, new communication channels, tested strategies, and established preferences among the online public allow the propagation of false information in viral fashion.

The Russian effort to weaponize measles by sowing misinformation about vaccination has important implications both for anti-vaxxers and for medical professionals fighting to save the lives anti-vaxxers put at risk.

Anti-vaxxers need to understand that they are the target of a highly sophisticated disinformation campaign designed to weaken our country. They are not brave, independent thinkers. They are dupes. What more do you need to know about the safety and efficacy of vaccination than the fact that the Russians, our mortal enemies, are trying to convince you of the opposite?

And the stakes are far higher than they realize. It isn’t just a matter of wasting money on the books and supplements peddled by anti-vax celebrities. It isn’t just a matter of putting the lives of your own children and other people’s infants and immunocompromised children at risk. It’s a matter of putting the safety of our country at risk.

Anti-vaxxers, you are NOT the victims of a massive conspiracy of all the doctors, public health officials and pharmaceutical companies in the world. You ARE a victim of a Russian conspiracy targeting you specifically, understanding that your lack of knowledge of science and statistics makes you the weak link in the effort to protect the health of individual Americans and American itself.

Russia is trying to Make America Sick Again. Don’t help them!

  • Melissa Wickersham

    If this peer reviewed paper about Russian online Bots is correct (and not simply mistaken), then the implications and geopolitical ramifications are terrifying.

  • thevaccinemachine

    Never knew Amy was a Russia conspiracy theorist

  • Griffin

    Meanwhile, spare a thought for the poor frustrated healthcare workers and scientists in Italy. Italy is a terrific example of what happens when arrogant ignorance reigns. Anti-vax conspiracy theories abound in Italy, already for about a decade. In 2012, an Italian court ruled that parents of a kid with autism should be awarded compensation because the kid’s autism was “probably” caused by the MMR vaccine (the ruling was later overturned but the damage was done). The populist Five Star Movement party (which was founded by a comedian) proposed an anti-vax law in 2015 because there is a “link between vaccinations and specific illnesses such as leukemia, poisoning, inflammation, immunosuppression, inheritable genetic mutations, cancer, autism and allergies.” The leader of the far-right party The League said vaccines are ““useless and in many cases dangerous.”

    The Five Star Movement party and the League are now in a coalition government since July 2018. Their ant-vax stance no doubt helped them get elected. The unbelievable fools planned to remove compulsory vaccination laws, including the requirement for parents to provide state schools with the immunization certificates of their kids.

    Well, by November 2018, the measles vaccine coverage in Italy was 91% and measles cases had exploded from 850 in 2016 to 4885 in 2017 (a quarter of all European cases) and 7697 in 2018. 90% of those who contracted measles were not vaccinated. Twelve Italians died of measles in 2017-2018. Various countries are warning travellers to Italy to get booster measles shots. A virologist in Milan said caustically that Italy now has the measles vaccine coverage of Namibia. A regional governor said that the government was sending the whole country back to the Middle Ages.

    Pressure from alarmed regional governments with measles epidemics has finally led the idiot federal government to reluctantly agree that vaccines might actually be useful after all. The health ministry recently stated that 800,000 infants, children and young adults should receive measles vaccinations and that teachers and healthcare workers must be vaccinated.

    Yet there remains avid resistance. A midwife was recently fired because she refused to get vaccinated. Roberto Burioni, a leading microbiologist, fumed at length on his FB page:

    “A health professional who refuses vaccinations is not just an inexcusable ignoramus but also close to being a criminal. The presence of an unvaccinated person in a ward where pregnant women give birth is like [a person] lighting a match in a petrol depot. … [this] insane and inconsiderate behavior endangers themselves and others’ lives, [they] must be hunted down to protect the safety of innocent people”.

  • Chi

    OT: Has anyone here heard of Dr Anthony Levatino?

    A ‘friend’ of mine (another mum from the Playcentre I used to attend with my daughter) shared a video of him testifying in Congress against abortion and he’s using emotive language and holding up tools as he describes how when a second-trimester abortion is performed they basically ‘rip apart’ the fetus to extract it.

    I understand that abortion is a polarizing issue. However I know that the majority of abortions performed here in NZ are a) done in the first trimester (you CANNOT get a second trimester abortion unless there are extreme circumstances) and b) done chemically with drugs.

    It’s not just the fact that it’s blatant anti-abortion propaganda, it’s the fact that it’s blatant misinformation which I CANNOT stand seeing shared around. And of course the fact that Dr Levatino is a (former?) OB/GYN lends credibility to what he’s saying, when the last time he performed an abortion was in the 1980’s.

    I’m going to attempt to calmly point out why the video is incorrect and then gently remind her that just because she doesn’t like abortions, doesn’t mean she can frown on those who have them.

    • That kind of misleading tactic has been around for decades. I’ve been asked by patients who’ve had first trimester miscarriages for the “baby’s remains” for burial, completely unaware (and often disbelieving) that an 8 week fetus isn’t a completely formed full-term infant in miniature, but rather a bloody blob. They assureme they’ve “seen pictures” of aborted fetuses which show them as “people”, so I must be lying.

      • rational thinker

        Sadly for a lot of people the thought in current times is “it was on facebook” and therefore is trustworthy information. It does not occur to them that someone simply took a picture of a late second trimester fetus and posted it as a first trimester fetus.

        • demodocus

          the news was posting something about Ohio’s proposed “heart beat” bill, with an ultrasound of a baby much, much older than 6 week embryo

          • rational thinker

            That’s not surprising, I wonder if anyone called them out on it.

          • demodocus

            -I- did, but i rather doubt anyone paid much attention to me

          • space_upstairs

            My daughter as an 8 week embryo vaguely looked like a rabbit on the ultrasound, and that was a stretch. And it wasn’t until 11 weeks that they could check for anencephaly and heart defects. Yes, she did look human by 12 weeks, but to carry her to live a nasty, brutish, and short life would not have been our preference.

      • mabelcruet

        I was on a website recently that was discussing the potential changes to termination of pregnancy in Northern Ireland, and someone had posted an image allegedly of a mother holding her miscarried baby claiming it was delivered at 13 weeks. I’ve seen the photo before-it was actually from a Pinterest page on sugarcraft, and it was a woman who made little sugar icing and marzipan models of term babies for christening cakes and baby showers. She does miniature version of term babies, she’s very good at it.

      • Cat

        I remember when the first of my old group of friends got pregnant, her husband was holding forth over lunch about how shocking it is that abortion is generally available in the UK up to 24 weeks when the baby is able to survive being born anytime from 13 weeks with no ill effects apart from being a year behind at school. He was utterly sincere so I suspect he’d just misread the baby book and confused the risk of miscarriage going down at the end of the first trimester with the stage at which a pregnancy is viable outside the uterus. It was weird though because none of us corrected him: I think a couple of the gang didn’t know the first thing about pregnancy, but for the rest of us it was probably the kind of group-think where you doubt your own knowledge because everyone else in the group appears to hold a different consensus.

        I think most people have a very hazy idea of the timescale for development of a pregnancy,. All the pro life propaganda using photos of chubby full-term babies obviously doesn’t help.

    • mabelcruet

      I’m a paediatric and perinatal pathologist, and also do obstetric pathology so I cover first trimester loss, molar pregnancy etc. The amount of misinformation out there is dreadful. In my previous hospital, all the first trimester losses go for cremation at the local crematorium and the ashes are scattered in the garden of remembrance for babies. The only reason we get ashes is because we did a communal cremation-all the 1st T losses from the proceeding month went together. If you cremated one on its own it would just evaporate. We audited our figures annually, and had fairly uniform figures each year-for a loss before 13 weeks, we saw an intact embryo/fetus in about 1/100 cases. We saw recognisable fetal parts in 1 in 10 (like bits of spine, but not an intact fetus). The vast majority of the time fetal tissue wasn’t identified, even though these were clinically recognised pregnancies. Once you get past 12/13 weeks, you get intact fetuses as they are a bit more robust. Where I work, surgical evacuation isn’t offered after 12 weeks, it’s medical induction, so we virtually always got an intact fetus. I don’t know anywhere in the UK that uses routine surgical evacuation in the 2nd trimester-I’ve seen it used for retained placental tissue, obviously, but not for primary fetal delivery.

      2nd trimester fetuses definitely look human-head, body, arms and legs etc. But they are like skinny little aliens-theres no fat, the skin is see through, they have little pointy faces and big eyes, long slender limbs and narrow trunk. Plus if they are retained in situ following death in utero, the tissues very rapidly macerate and soften, and that can cause a lot of damage during delivery, the macerated fellows are very delicate and need careful handling. So I can see where some people might get the idea that the fetus is ripped apart during delivery-but it’s certainly not intentional, at least where I work.

  • namaste

    Putin has access to smallpox. Sleep tight, pupkins!

    • Cartman36

      Its terrifying but I think the US is actually prepared for the use of small pox as a biological weapon.

      “The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention already has issued guidelines to state health departments on how to vaccinate all Americans within five to 10 days in the event of an outbreak.” https://www.ph.ucla.edu/epi/bioter/paneladvisesvacsmallpox.html

      I only knew because I got a smallpox vaccine in boot camp in 2005 and I was listening to a Paul Offit lecture online recently and he spoke about voting against vaccinating people before an attack because it spreads fairly slowly so we should have time to vaccinate people.

      That said, I would gladly trudge 5 miles with 3 kids 5 and under in tow to get them vaccinated now if I could.

      • mabelcruet

        Remember SARS and the travel chaos that caused? A friend of mine was doing a sabbatical in Canada and the hospital he was based at got a case of it, and it was immediately locked down. No one in or out, none of the staff could leave, they were sleeping on the floor in the canteen and had armed police guarding the hospital. We aren’t equipped at all for a pandemic. Look at the flu pandemic in 1918 or so-millions upon millions dead. If that happened now, the deaths would run just as high and the health care system everywhere would cave in. It’s a frighteningly possible end of civilisation potential disaster waiting to happen.

        • Griffin

          I remember the movie 12 Monkeys in the 90’s vividly. The scenario in the airport seemed all too possible, it scared the hell out of me.

      • Sarah

        There was someone on one of the antivax threads here a few years ago who posted what they thought was their trump argument, saying to a few of us that if we wanted vaccinating against something as rare as polio, did that mean we’d have a smallpox vaccine too. She seemed surprised when we all answered in the affirmative.

  • KeeperOfTheBooks

    Hmmm. I tend to be inclined towards the view that one should never ascribe to conspiracy that which can be ascribed to arrogant, determined stupidity combined with having too much time on one’s hands.
    Mind you, the two ain’t mutually exclusive…

    • The Bofa on the Sofa

      Yeah, but you have to wonder, why would Russian bots be sending any messages about vaccination? It’s clearly being done for a reason. You don’t do it randomly.

  • KQ Not Signed In

    This is chilling. While initially it sounds far-fetched, it is far more logical and scarily realistic than a global conspiracy by nearly all doctors and health organizations.

    • Russell Jones

      I can remember a time when a story like this would sound not only far-fetched but also like tin foil hat gibberish. Welcome to 2019 America, where nothing is implausible provided it’s horrific enough.