The failure of vaccine messages

Vaccine coverage rates, overall, remain very strong in the USA. Well over 90% of kids are well-vaccinated, and the rates of vaccine-preventable diseases remains very low. Newer vaccines have proven especially safe and effective, including immunizations against severe diarrheal illness and cancers of the cervix and throat. In many ways, we are staying ahead in our battle against vaccine-preventable disease.

Yet: there are still pockets of intense resistance to vaccines, resistance that’s based on fear and lies and a willingness of anti-vaccine propagandists to say anything to decrease public confidence in vaccinations, doctors, scientists, and the parents who vaccinate their children. We’ll call these folks the “pro-disease lobby.”

In my practice, almost all families get all of their kid’s vaccines. We talk about what they’re for, we talk about the expected side effects (most babies have none, a small minority have some fussiness or fever), and we make sure parents know how to handle those and when to call if anything worrisome happens. We give out vaccine information statements, which also list potential side effects, trivial and serious. Then we get the babies and children protected.

There are some families who have sincere questions, and those get extra time to get their questions answered, respectfully and patiently.

Then there are those 100% devoted to the pro-disease lobby. They don’t want questions answered — at least not by their pediatrician, not when the Internet tells them what they want to hear. Frankly, I don’t even know why they come see me. If they think I’m evil or stupid or thoroughly misguided, why would they trust me with any aspect of child care?

Is there any way to convince these families that vaccines are a good idea? A new study looked at different vaccine messages: which ones work, which ones help, which ones hurt. The results are discouraging. Web-based surveys were conducted with about 1800 parents in 2011, who were then randomized to receive one of four pro-vaccine interventions.  The four different messages were: 1) information explaining the lack of evidence that MMR causes autism; 2) information about the dangers of vaccine-preventable diseases; 3) images of children who had diseases that could have been prevented with vaccines; or 4) a dramatic narrative about an infant who almost died of measles.

None of these messages, none of them, increased parents willingness or intent to vaccinate. In fact, among parents who were already vaccine-hesitant, these messages boosted vaccine misperceptions. For instance, specific evidence about the lack of a credible MMR-autism link further decreased the intent to vaccine among the parents who were already the most skeptical prior to the study. And the dramatic story about the child sick with measles increased the perception of MMR side effects among parents who already distrusted the vaccine — even though that story had nothing to do with side effects of any vaccine.

Among parents who have the strongest anti-vaccine views, no approach seemed to soften their stance. Instead, most of these attempts to communicate science-based information backfired — increasing anti-vaccine sentiment, in many cases reinforcing specific wrong beliefs that were not even relevant to the message given.

This jibes with my own experience, and what pediatricians say around the water cooler (more likely, honestly, the coffee maker). The true anti-vaccine, pro-disease parent is essentially in a cult, with fixed delusional beliefs far outside reality. Talking with them only increases their anger and hardens their stance. People do not like to believe that they’re possibly wrong, and would rather listen to viewpoints that agree with their own, even at the cost of their own health. That’s too bad, because their children suffer, and our children suffer too.

Roy Benaroch is a pediatrician who blogs at The Pediatric Insider. He is also the author of Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool: A Parent’s Guide and A Guide to Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child.

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