Surgeon general warns misinformation an 'urgent threat' to public health

The surgeon general is warning Americans about the “urgent threat of health misinformation” amid the government’s current push to boost stalling vaccination rates.

Dr. Vivek Murthy’s advisory — the first under the Biden administration — addresses an epidemic of misinformation and disinformation, and its pernicious impact on public health — specifically threatening the U.S. response to COVID-19. It frames misinformation as having hindered vaccination efforts, sown mistrust, caused people to reject public health measures, use unproven treatments, prolonged the pandemic and put lives at risk.

The advisory says combatting misinformation is a “moral and civic responsibility” on an individual and institutional level.

PHOTO: Surgeon General Vivek Murthy speaks at a ceremony honoring care workers, July 13, 2021, in Santa Fe, N.M.

The decision to elevate this issue in his first official advisory comes as some Republicans have used the government’s coronavirus response and vaccine messaging as a political wedge.

While Murthy doesn’t call out by name any of the Republican elected officials who have criticized a distorted interpretation of Biden administration’s vaccine push, he does suggest accountable “stakeholders” in the fight against misinformation include public officeholders as important public messengers.

“Misinformation tends to flourish in environments of significant societal division, animosity, and distrust,” the advisory says. “Distrust of the health care system due to experiences with racism and other inequities may make it easier for misinformation to spread in some communities. Growing polarization, including in the political sphere, may also contribute to the spread of misinformation.”

PHOTO: Masked and unmasked people make their way through Grand Central Market in Los Angeles, on June 29, 2021 as the WHO urges fully vaccinated people to continue wearing masks with the rapid spread of the delta variant.

The advisory also digs into social media platforms as having greatly contributed to the “unprecedented speed and scale” of misinformation’s spread and Murthy calls on technology and social media companies to “take more responsibility to stop online spread of health misinformation.”

“Health misinformation is an urgent threat to public health. It can cause confusion, sow mistrust, and undermine public health efforts, including our ongoing work to end the COVID-19 pandemic,” Murthy said in a statement. “As Surgeon General, my job is to help people stay safe and healthy, and without limiting the spread of health misinformation, American lives are at risk … tackling this challenge will require an all-of-society approach, but it is critical for the long-term health of our nation.”

The advisory lays out how to better identify and avoid sharing health misinformation, engage with the community on the issue and develop local strategies against misinformation.

PHOTO: Respiratory therapist Robert Blas (left) from Veritas Vaccines administers the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to people at a mobile clinic in an East Los Angeles neighborhood, which has lower vaccination rates especially among the youth, on July 9, 2021.

ABC News’ Anne Flaherty contributed to this report.

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