Anti-Vaxxer Facebook Groups Are Putting Children's Lives at Risk By Advising Against Using Tamiflu

In the midst of a deadly flu season, health misinformation and propaganda can mean death for young children. One child has already died as a result.

In a post-truth world, a world where public opinion is shaped not by fact but by propaganda and misinformation, battles, and lives, are won and lost on social media. Misguided activist groups sway hearts and minds with rhetoric and vitriol, putting science aside and risking lives in the process.

The newest victim of this dangerous trend is a 4-year-old boy from Colorado. According to since-deleted posts in an anti-vax Facebook group, the young boy's mother reached out for advice, decided against giving him medication, and days later, he died.

According to the posts in the Facebook group "Stop Mandatory Vaccination," the boy's mother, Geneva Montoya, posted that after two other children were diagnosed with the flu the whole family was prescribed Tamiflu, an antiviral medication that is commonly prescribed to treat influenza. At the urging of members of the anti-vaccination Facebook group, which boasts over 130,000 members, she refused to fill the prescription.

Commenters in the group suggested using vitamin supplements, zinc, skin-to-skin contact, breastfeeding, boiling thyme on the stove, and even cold compresses of cucumber and potato slices—instead of following the doctor's recommendation for the family to take Tamiflu. According to NBC News, none of the 45 comments on the mother's post recommended conventional medical treatment.

Close-up of side of a box of oseltamivir phosphate medication, trade name Tamiflu, used to treat influenza, March 22, 2019.
Close-up of side of a box of oseltamivir phosphate medication, trade name Tamiflu, used to treat influenza, March 22, 2019. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Montoya later updated the post, saying that her 10-month-old had also had a seizure and a temperature of 105. She explained that she treated the infant with elderberry, peppermint oil, vitamin C, and lavender oil, and that the fever had not abated. "Please no hard comments," she wrote. "I'm a momma freaking out all alone in this with a family who believes in none [sic] natural ways...They are making me feel bad for not putting him on Tamiflu [sic]."

According to a GoFundMe set up by the family, Najee developed a temperature of 102, experienced a seizure, and was airlifted to Children's Hospital in Colorado Springs. He passed away four days later.

The group "Stop Mandatory Vaccination" is run by Larry Cook, an anti-vaccination activist and "advocate for natural living." The group's aim is to educate people about the "dangers of vaccination" and to mobilize people against mandatory vaccination. The group has been known to mass-contact grieving parents to spread anti-vaccination rhetoric and propaganda. And that's only one of many anti-vaccination Facebook groups spreading disinformation about vaccines and potentially life-saving medication. Here's what health professionals advise when it comes to preventing and treating the flu.

Flu Medications

Oseltamivir (aka Tamiflu) is an antiviral medication that is commonly prescribed to treat the flu. It helps to lessen the symptoms associated with influenza infection and reduces the risk of serious flu-related complications like pneumonia. The medication can be taken in pill, liquid, or powder form and works by attacking the flu virus which prevents it from spreading throughout the body.

Drugs like Tamiflu (or similar antiviral medications) can also be used preventively by those who've been exposed to the flu virus but aren't showing symptoms. That means if one family member gets the flu and starts taking an antiviral within the first two days of symptoms, the rest of the family has a smaller risk of catching the virus.

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommend antiviral drugs like Tamiflu for children who are diagnosed with a severe case of the flu or are at risk of complications (chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes, or heart or lung disease).

Flu Vaccines

It has also been reported that, in the now-deleted posts, Montoya stated that none of her children had been vaccinated against influenza. But despite rampant doubt over the efficacy of flu vaccinations, fueled in part by anti-vaccination campaigns, research shows the flu vaccine can save lives.

According to the CDC, a 2014 study showed that the flu vaccine reduced children’s risk of flu-related pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) admission by 74 percent during flu seasons from 2010-2012. Similarly, a 2017 study found evidence that flu vaccination can significantly reduce a child’s risk of dying from flu.

"Think of it this way: The vaccine may not protect all people from getting the flu, but it usually lessens disease duration and severity. Why not do something that protects you from a virus that can kill you?” Aaron Milstone, M.D., associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, one of five Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance, previously told “It’s the same reason you wear a seat belt. It’s not a guarantee that you won’t die in a car accident, but it reduces the risk.”

If you haven't been vaccinated or had your children vaccinated yet, it's not too late. The CDC recommends vaccination throughout the flu season, which begins in the fall and doesn't end until late spring.

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