INFECTIONS
August 5, 2015

Overcoming the Fear of Vaccines

Parents refuse vaccines because they care about their kids. A new approach to vaccination honors that concern.

Those cloudy discs in the eyes of the baby in the photo above are cataracts, the result of Congenital Rubella Syndrome and his not being vaccinated for rubella with the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine.

Instead of trying to convince people that vaccines aren't dangerous, doctors and public health officials seeking to overcome anti-vaccine sentiment might do better showcasing the dangers of not getting vaccinated. The risk of catching measles and other diseases that vaccines can prevent. That's the message from a new study of people's attitudes toward vaccines.

Talking about the dangers of measles and other diseases might be more a more effective way to get parents to reconsider.

Few people have ever seen children with measles, mumps or rubella. These diseases have been eradicated in the United States, though international travelers can bring them back to U.S. soil, sometimes causing outbreaks such as the 2015 measles outbreak in California.

But seemingly everyone has heard about the discredited study that linked the MMR vaccine to autism. And even though that study was retracted over five years ago, it still gives some people pause when thinking about vaccinating their children.

Rather than address the false link between vaccines and autism on the facts, talking about the dangers of measles and other diseases first might be a more effective way to get parents to reconsider.

After all, parents' main motivation for avoiding vaccines is keeping their children safe. If they see that they are putting them at risk for complications like cataracts and life-threatening diseases like measles, they are less likely to be sure that avoiding vaccines is the best way to do that.

A 2014 study tested several ways to try and change anti-vaccination sentiments, including recounting a mother's tale of her infant's hospitalization with measles. But none of the approaches that were tested made people more likely to vaccinate their children afterwards.

The current study went a bit further and was successful at getting some of the people who were opposed to vaccination to change their attitude.

It first asked 315 people about their attitudes on a number of controversial subjects including vaccines and their willingness to vaccinate their children. Then they were randomly assigned to one of three groups.

The first group simply looked at information that challenged the anti-vaccination point of view. The second group, a “disease risk group,” focused on the risks associated with measles, mumps and rubella. They read a paragraph written by a mother about her child's infection with measles; saw pictures of a child with measles, a child with mumps and an infant with rubella and read three short warnings about the importance of vaccinating one's children. The third group, the control group, read about a subject not associated with vaccines.

Afterwards, all three groups again completed a vaccine attitude evaluation and answered questions about their past vaccine behaviors and their intent to vaccinate their children in the future.

The researchers reported definite changes of attitude in the disease risk group. “We found that directing people's attention to the risks posed by not getting vaccinated, like getting measles, mumps and rubella and the complications associated with those diseases, changed people's attitudes positively towards vaccination — and that was for even the most skeptical participants in the study. Actually, the largest effect sizes were for people who were the most skeptical,” Zachary Horne, a University of Illinois graduate student involved in the study, said in a statement.

And those are the people who need to change their mind if vaccination rates are going to rise.

The study appears in PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
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