Vaccination rates are at an all-time low in some pockets of the U.S., due to a seemingly intractable anti-vaccination sentiment among some parents. This is a major risk to the public safety, but doctors struggle to make headway because medical evidence doesn't seem to assuage these parents' concerns.
So far, most strategies have focused on refuting the myth that vaccines can cause autism. But a new study suggests that confronting parents about the "wrongness" of their views is probably a dead end. Instead, showing parents images of and personal testimonies about infectious diseases seemed to improve skeptics' attitudes about vaccines.
Sidestepping a confrontation about how vaccines don't cause autism, and instead concentrating on the dangers of skipping vaccines, could be the way forward in changing resistant parents' minds, said researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and the University of California, Los Angeles.
“That might mean showing parents images of sick children or explaining just how dangerous those diseases are,” said Derek Powell, one of the study's lead authors and a doctoral student at the UCLA Reasoning Lab. "If I were a doctor I think I would want to make new parents feel at ease, but that might not be the best course when it comes to the dangers of these diseases."
For the study, Powell and his colleagues divided 315 participants into three groups. The first looked at written material challenging anti-vaccination arguments. The second group read materials from the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that focused on the risks of vaccine-preventable diseases. The material included a stirring paragraph by a mother whose child had measles, some short warnings about the importance of vaccines, and photos of children with measles, mumps and and rubella. The third group — the control group — read about a subject that didn’t have anything to do with vaccines.
Before and after the groups read, the researchers interviewed participants on their beliefs about vaccines, whether or not they had vaccinated their children and whether they planned to vaccinate future children. While reading about how vaccines don't cause autism had almost no effect on those participants as compared to the control group, researchers found that participants in the second group — those who had been given an onslaught of personal testimony, graphic proof of the diseases' physical damage and the vaccine warnings — were the ones most likely to shift their views toward a more positive regard for vaccines.
In fact, the most skeptical participants who read personal testimonies about disease had a statistically significant attitude improvement as compared to the control group. And that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, wrote researcher John Hummel, a psychology professor at University of Illinois.
"Of course, the skeptics are the people with the greatest amount of room to move, so in a sense that finding is unsurprising," Hummel said in a statement. "But it's also extremely important, because those are precisely the people you want to move. That's the kind of result we were really looking for."
This new finding is more encouraging than previous research on the subject, including a much-publicized 2014 study that employed similar methods. That study sent 1,759 U.S. parents one of four randomly chosen interventions: CDC information about how vaccines do not cause autism; written information about the dangers of measles, mumps and rubella; images of children suffering from vaccine-preventable diseases; and a dramatically written story about a baby who almost died of measles.
That study found that none of the interventions worked to convince parents about the benefits of vaccines. In fact, the interventions actually made vaccine-skeptical parents even more strident in their decision to not have their kids vaccinated. So what’s the difference between that 2014 study and this one?
For one thing, a lot has happened when it comes to vaccines and infectious diseases in between the time the two different studies came out. The 2014 study, for instance, actually surveyed people in 2011. Since then, the U.S. experienced its greatest measles resurgence in 20 years and first measles death in 12 years, the world experienced a devastating Ebola epidemic, and high profile outbreaks like the spread of measles at Disneyland put infectious disease front and center of the national conversation.
“If news of these outbreaks has reminded people of the dangers of these diseases and the benefits of vaccines, our findings suggest that this might improve their attitudes toward vaccinations," said Powell.
But the reason this latest study found more heartening results may be because it measured vaccination attitudes on a more sensitive scale, he added. "We developed a scale to measure vaccine attitudes, which let us get a more reliable measure of people’s attitudes before and after the intervention.”
The medical community still has a long way to go in figuring out how to reach vaccine-skeptical parents, but recent events suggest that public opinion is putting more pressure on this small minority group. Those who decline to have their children vaccinated claim its their medical right to do so, but high-profile outbreaks have also led to a surge of others claiming the medical rights of the general public: the right to not be exposed to preventable disease and the right to herd immunity for those who can't get vaccines for medical reasons. The turn in public sentiment is evident in places like California, a hotbed of non-vaccinating communities. Last June, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed into law a bill that requires all children to be vaccinated unless they have a medical exemption excuse from a doctor — a law that only two other states have.
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