In 1998, a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield published an article in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet linking childhood autism to the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella. The findings went viral. MMR vaccinations plunged.

A few years later Wakefield, an outspoken opponent of vaccines, was found to have manipulated the results. He lost his medical license and The Lancet article was retracted, but only after countless kids died as a result of that disinformation.

It’s happening again. Untruths and distortions about the COVID-19 vaccine are killing tens of thousands of Americans every day. Anti-vaxxers, along with conservative politicians and TV commentators, are slandering vaccines as ineffective, dangerous and part of a government plot to enslave the citizenry.

President Biden took some flak the other day for accusing disinformation-spreading social media giants of “killing people.” A bit harsh maybe, but he has a point.

Largely because of the highly contagious delta variant, new COVID-19 cases are soaring again — up 200 percent in the past two weeks, nationwide and in the Berkshires. Hospitals report that up to 99 percent of newly infected patients are unvaccinated. Some of them will die.

What’s wrong with these people? Vaccines are plentiful, cost recipients nothing and provide strong protection against the coronavirus. Yet many folks are refusing them. Are they nuts?

Probably just worried. A new Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that the biggest reason for vaccine hesitancy is concern about possible side effects, followed by worries over long-term complications. Those points are easily addressed: Billions of vaccinations have been administered, with almost zero problems. And what few do surface are far less gruesome than getting COVID-19, let alone dying of it.

Trouble is, some people don’t listen to evidence. Instead, they surf a seductively scary sea of false information, much of it anecdotal, on TV and social media. Mendacity works. Researchers at MIT have found that even minimal exposure to this nonsense depresses vaccination rates.

Meanwhile, the whole subject of COVID-19 has become so politicized that reasoned debate is difficult. More than 85 percent of Democrats have had at least one shot, but only 52 percent of Republicans. The New York Times reports that the least vaccinated counties in the U.S. have one thing in common: they all voted for Donald Trump. For some Republicans, refusing to get vaccinated has become a badge of political loyalty.

It’s tempting to say: “Darwin was right. Let these idiots go. It’s their choice.” But that response is neither humane nor intelligent. People may get COVID-19 through their own stupidity, but they go on to infect other people – and all of them become potential petri dishes for new, more contagious, more vaccine-resistant variants.

Cracking down on disinformation might help, but it’s not the answer. Nor is hectoring the unvaccinated, which only reinforces their urge to rebel against intrusive government, liberal scolds and pointy-headed scientists.

A better strategy, communications experts say, would be to remind people that a majority of Americans have gotten at least one vaccine shot, that nearly half are fully immunized, and that multitudes more are rolling up their sleeves every day. Emphasizing the vast numbers of people who have chosen to be vaccinated is far more effective than complaining about those who haven’t. If everybody’s doing it, maybe it’s not so bad.

Indeed, the Kaiser study found that the single best method for ending vaccine hesitancy is to convey that sense of momentum through personal contacts. Friends, relatives and family doctors are, in effect, our secret weapons in the vaccination war.

And a war it is — a life-and-death struggle fought in the trenches, hand-to-hand and face-to-face. So if you know any folks who have not gotten a shot, the best thing you can do is this: Tell them you did, and why.

Lately, a few leading Republicans — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise Fox News’ Sean Hannity — have apparently decided that too many of their followers are dying. They’ve begun urging people to get vaccinations and even boasting about their own shots. The tide is turning. Pass it on.

Disinformation may be killing Americans, but good information can save them — especially if it comes from sources they trust. Information is power. So get out there and use it.

Donald Morrison is an Eagle columnist and co-chairman of the advisory board. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.