No, There Isn’t a Simple Way to Get Anti-Vaccine Parents to Vaccinate

Everywhere you look, the media is telling you that you can scare anti-vaccine parents into vaccinating by showing them photos of sick kids and telling them stories about diseases. Article after article after article lately is telling us that we can win vaccine debate and change minds–simply! Why didn’t we all think of this before? (Seriously. Click that hyperlink.)

The buzz in the media is based on a new study published in PNAS looking at ways of countering anti-vaccine beliefs. The study looked at over 300 people with varying degrees of vaccine acceptance and hesitancy and presented them with one of three forms of vaccine information: a mother’s story about her child’s measles, facts debunking vaccine myths, or information about birds. The stories, it turns out, had the greatest effect on attitudes about vaccines. As Tara Haelle at Forbes points out:

So, presenting individuals with the dangers of not vaccinating, both in words and in images, seemed to help them think more positively about vaccines. In fact, the effect was most dramatic in those who had the lowest scores – the poorest attitudes toward vaccines – at the start.

Let’s be very clear that this study absolutely did not measure whether or not parents of unvaccinated children then went out to vaccinate their children. Their attitudes simply shifted because the risks associated with not vaccinating were reframed for them in a way that was both relatable and memorable. (In fact, I’m quoted in Haelle’s article saying that.)

I mention this limitation because I do not want pro-vaccine advocates to be lulled into thinking that the way to win debates or get people to vaccinate is to bombard them with pictures of sick kids and stories about suffering children. I can imagine social media arguments where anti-vaxxers make their same tired assertions only to be answered by a well-meaning pro-vaxxer who thinks she can solve it all by posting a photo of an ill child. I’ve been to the rodeo a few times, and while that might get some attention, we aren’t going to solve the issue of vaccine hesitancy that way.

In fact, I have witnessed in person that very technique not working. I was at a screening of the film Invisible Threat, which contains two stories of disease and its awful effects. Afterward, during the Q&A, one woman wanted to talk about how Vaccine Court proves that vaccines are unsafe. See how easy it is to set aside a story in favor of your own entrenched beliefs?

Do you know what actually makes people deconvert from the anti-vaccine movement? Other people who care about them.

I have spoken to and worked with and met many, many people who used to be anti-vaccine and many more who had some degree of fear about vaccines. Understanding the risk of disease through story was vital to them understanding why we prevent those diseases, but it wasn’t the end of their deconversion. Every one of these people I have met has had someone in their life–a doctor, a friend, a new acquaintance, a family member–who cares enough to keep a civil conversation going. And the conversation was not grounded in winning a debate. The conversation was grounded in a sincere and deep concern about protecting children.

So go ahead and tell your stories about your encounters with disease. They are critically important because they remind us that we don’t do all of this for nothing. But ground this conversation in kindness and goodwill, and plan on sticking around for a while. Telling the stories is just the first step. Showing we care enough to keep talking is crucial. And no, it’s not easy.

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