THE BLOG

Fight the Anti-Vaccine Rhetoric With Science

The goal is not only to improve science literacy in a general way, but also to get out the message that parents who vaccinate are in the majority and that their decision is supported by their community as well as other parents from all sides of the political and social spectrum.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.
happy baby smiling at the camera
happy baby smiling at the camera

Crossposted from MHA @ GW as part of their series on the importance of immunization in 2015 for National Immunization Awareness Month (NIAM)

In all likelihood parents have already made up their mind as to whether or not they'll vaccinate themselves and their children. And in all likelihood, that decision was to vaccinate.

2015-08-24-1440447545-8260247-vaccinesuperhero.jpg

They are motivated by shared concern for their children and community. They know that vaccines prevent many childhood diseases and that by maintaining high vaccination rates in their community, they maintain herd immunity. Perhaps they've seen the comparison of morbidity rates in the pre- and post-vaccine era and understand the significant impact vaccines have made in preventing the worst childhood diseases. They may have been worried about the outbreak of measles among families who took their children to Disneyland earlier this year, which hit unvaccinated people the hardest. Regardless of how they came to this decision, the vast majority of parents understand that the risks of vaccines are low relative to their tremendous benefits.

This is good news for the health of our communities. It's crucial that we continue to keep talking about immunization, because vaccine opponents are relentless -- see the comments on my piece here for many examples of the bad science and provocative rhetoric they employ.

Speaking up is the most important step, letting parents know that their decision to vaccinate is the safest and most common way people protect their children. The anti-vaccine minority is disproportionately loud, partly because vaccines are so safe, effective and ubiquitous that they become part of the background landscape of parenting. Fortunately, in reaction to harmful pseudoscientific scaremongering and events like the Disneyland outbreak, people are motivated to speak out in favor of vaccines.

It matters how we talk about vaccines, too. That's where the most room for improvement lies in 2015. Writers want the discussion to be dramatic and too often try to paint "anti-vaxxers" as demonic or vile. Or they try to use the vaccine debate as a weapon in the larger culture wars. This leads to the media (and many well-meaning science writers) giving too much weight to vaccine opponents, creating the false perception that there is a "growing movement." Another problem is that the default images associated with stories on vaccinations are often distressed children and menacing needles. These approaches can have the unfortunate effect of recruiting more people to the anti-vaccine community, as Dan Kahan has pointed out in his piece in Science magazine and on his blog.

We therefore need to carefully consider our approaches in discussing the importance of immunization and ask ourselves certain questions: Is this likely to increase or decrease immunization rates? What do parents who are undecided on this issue need in order to make an informed choice? What do vaccine-hesitant parents need to hear to assuage their fears?

The approach that I take on my blog is to confront the bad science being spread about vaccines directly and to provide resources to parents wishing to educate themselves and their community. These resources include a guide to reading and understanding scientific papers, and a guide for those critical "playground conversations" between parents who vaccinate and vaccine-hesitant parents.

The goal is not only to improve science literacy in a general way, but also to get out the message that parents who vaccinate are in the majority and that their decision is supported by their community as well as other parents from all sides of the political and social spectrum.