The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned an Australian anti-vaccine group to stop using its name and logo without permission, after the group released a misleading press statement that has been shared more than 8,000 times on Facebook.
On Feb. 3, WHO legal counsel Derek Walton wrote to the Australian Vaccination-risks Network (AVN), demanding the group make it "abundantly clear" that a press release issued on Jan. 18 was neither sent nor approved by the WHO.
The archived online version of the release, titled "World Health Organization Questions Vaccine Safety", included a screenshot of the WHO's Global Vaccine Safety Summit website, clearly showing the organisation's logo at the top.
Walton wrote that the use of the screenshot "gives the misleading impression that it is an official press release" of the WHO.
According to social media analytics tool Crowdtangle, Facebook users have liked, reacted to, or shared posts linking to the press release at least 34,000 times.
WHO communications officer Laura Keenan told BuzzFeed News that AVN's press release contradicted the organisation's strong support for vaccination.
"A common tactic for anti-vaccination activists is to misuse or take statements out of context, as part of a systematic attempt to discredit vaccines," she said.
The AVN's press release selectively quotes experts speaking at the Global Vaccine Safety Summit to falsely suggest that the science is unclear about the safety or effectiveness of vaccines.
The Vaccine Confidence Project's professor Heidi Larson delivered an address at the summit on Dec. 2, which made the case for improving communication strategies — including a call to engage with anti-vaxxers — to improve uptake of vaccines.
But AVN used sections of her address to make the opposite case. A quote about how doctors aren't adequately prepared to communicate about vaccines is, in the press release, twisted into a false claim about how medical professionals are not properly trained when it comes to vaccines.
Following the letter, AVN removed the screenshot of the WHO website and included information about the WHO’s correspondence in the press release. But the screenshot of the WHO website has now been replaced with a photograph of the letter, which also features WHO’s name and logo.
"We agreed to [take the screenshot down]," the website reads. "We are responding to them and will share all correspondence as we send and receive it. Please stay tuned and keep sharing this with the media and others."
AVN also wrote that the press release went viral "because it told the truth about vaccination" and doubled down on its claims about what was said at the WHO summit.
The WHO is widely recognised as the world's leading health authority with expertise on vaccines. Facebook is showing users information from WHO first when they search for terms related to COVID-19 to combat misinformation about the virus.