How to Tell Your Anti-Vaccine Patients the Truth About Vaccines

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The anti-vaccine movement traces back to a 1998 study that falsely linked the MMR vaccine and autism.
The anti-vaccine movement traces back to a 1998 study that falsely linked the MMR vaccine and autism.

Vaccines have saved tens of millions of lives and are widely considered one of the greatest medical advances in modern times.1,2 Yet, for as long as vaccines have existed there have been people who question their efficacy.3 The anti-vaccine movement has grown in recent years: while vaccine rates are up, so are refusals.4

A number of arguments in opposition to vaccines have been debunked.5,6 Some argue that people are getting sicker every year and that vaccines are to blame. Others argue that diseases started to disappear prior to the introduction of vaccines thanks to improved sanitation. Yet, perhaps no myth has been more persistent – and damaging – than the myth that vaccines cause autism.

It all traces back to a study published in 1998 that falsely linked the MMR vaccine and autism.7 Even though the study has since been retracted and declared “utterly false” by the editor of the journal that published it,8 the damage was done and the myth persists.9 This is evident in the rising rates of vaccine refusals and how the idea has seeped into the public consciousness.

Today, 34% of US adults believe they know as much or more than scientists about what causes autism.10 Simply put, vaccination opponents think they know better.

Unfortunately, fixing falsehoods is rarely easy. What can you do to get your anti-vaccine patients to accept the truth about vaccines? A 2015 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences may offer us a clue.11

In this study, participants were divided into 3 groups. Group 1 received a mother's written perspective about her child contracting measles; pictures of a child with measles, a child with mumps, and a baby with rubella; and 3 short warnings about the importance of vaccines. Group 2 received a summary of recent research showing that there is no connection between vaccines and autism. Group 3 received reading materials on an unrelated scientific topic. The participants in group 1 showed a much greater shift in positive attitude toward vaccines than the participants in groups 2 and 3.

The takeaway? It may be tempting to lecture anti-vaccine patients about why they're wrong, but you may get further by telling and showing them what it's like when a child gets sick from a preventable disease.

The idea of appealing to emotion rather than science may be controversial for many in scientific circles. Combatting anecdote with anecdote may be effective, but is it the right thing to do? Another way of looking at it: should the goal be to inform or persuade people? Statistics alone may not be compelling, but stories of real people are.

A systematic review published in the Journal of Pediatric Nursing explored how providers should address these patients.12 The results revealed that a tailored approach is important, given that it's difficult to know what kind of messages will resonate with patients. Building trust and encouraging a nonconfrontational and participatory discussion promotes positive interactions.

Moving forward, regardless of what happens in public policy, it's up to each clinician to decide how he or she will appeal to anti-vaccine patients. Simply sharing the truth about vaccines – that they are safe and effective – may not be enough.

What's the best way to get through to anti-vaccine patients in your experience? Leave a comment below.

References

  1. Worboys M. Vaccines: conquering untreatable diseases. BMJ. 2007;334:s19.
  2. Ten great public health achievements – United States, 1900-1999. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 1999;48(12):241-243.
  3. History of anti-vaccination movements. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Updated January 10, 2018. Accessed August 15, 2018.
  4. Fox M. Vaccine rates are up, but so are refusals. NBC News. Updated January 19, 2018. Accessed August 15, 2018.
  5. Gid M-K. 8 common arguments against vaccines. Medium. September 9, 2017. Accessed August 15, 2018.
  6. Boulanger A, Gotter A. Understanding opposition to vaccines. Healthline. Reviewed June 27, 2016. Accessed August 15, 2018.
  7. Gupta S. Where did the myth about vaccines and autism come from? Everyday Health. Updated February 13, 2015. Accessed August 15, 2018.
  8. Boseley S. Lancet retracts ‘utterly false' MMR paper. The Guardian. February 2, 2010. Accessed August 15, 2018.
  9. Haberman C. A discredited vaccine study's continuing impact on public health. The New York Times. February 1, 2015. Accessed August 15, 2018.
  10. Motta M. Opponents of vaccination think they know more than medical experts. PsyPost. August 11, 2018. Accessed August 15, 2018.
  11. Horne Z, Powell D, Hummel JE, Holyoak KJ. Countering antivaccination attitudes. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2015;112(33):10321-10324.
  12. Connors JT, Slotwinski KL, Hodges EA. Provider-parent communication when discussing vaccines: a systematic review. J Pediatr Nurs. 2017;33:10-15.
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