Stopping Vaccine Denial: Are We Doing It Wrong?

Rebecca Watson

For the past three months,
California has been in the grip of a measles outbreak that has affected 126 people
thus far with more cases anticipated. Only about 92 percent of children in California public schools are currently vaccinated, which,
obviously, is not enough considering that the outbreak started at Disneyland and about half of all patients are under the age of nineteen.

Measles was actually considered eradicated from the United States in 2000, with a few cases occurring now and then thanks to infected travelers entering
the country. That was just a few years before celebrities such as Andrew Wakefield and Jenny McCarthy rallied parents to stop vaccinating their children on
the false belief that vaccines actually cause diseases. Thanks to them, last year more than 17,000 children entered kindergarten in California
with a non-medical exemption for vaccination, meaning their parents hold a “personal belief” that allows them to put both their own children and others at
serious risk of a deadly disease.

So, what do we do? Many people like myself, who believe in both the scientific consensus on vaccinations as well as public education, believe the answer is
to do everything in our power to teach people the facts that demonstrate the safety and efficacy of vaccines as well as the dangers of avoiding them.

The problem with this is that facts may not be as compelling as we want them to be. Researchers Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler have spent the past few
years conducting studies that seem specifically designed to depress science communicators. Last year, they published a paper in which they showed that correcting
myths about the MMR vaccination actually decreased a parent’s intention to vaccinate. Even showing participants images of sick children was
counterproductive, increasing their belief that vaccines are connected with autism.

Last month, they conducted a similar test using the common belief that the
flu vaccine causes the flu. The results were the same: correcting the misconception only decreased the subjects’ self-reported intention to get vaccinated.

At this point, we can only guess as to the reason why this happens. Do people hold their anti-vaccination beliefs so deeply that correcting a misconception
only encourages them to spend time digging around for another reason to hate vaccines? If so, then the answer may be to address the underlying reasons for
the belief instead of the scientific facts. For instance, perhaps the belief is rooted in a fear of government control over individual choices.

That hypothesis makes it all the more ironic that the more immediate solution is government control over individual choices. California is close to passing a law that will end
the personal belief exemption for the MMR vaccine, forcing parents to either vaccinate their children, home school them, or move to another state. The
people who believe that this will threaten their religious freedom ignore the fact that religious freedom stops where the threat to public safety begins,
and measles has clearly become a very real threat to public safety.

But will the law (which already exists in West Virginia and Mississippi) only encourage the anti-government anti-vaccine activists to band together and
renew their efforts to fight for their freedom to harm innocent kids? Time will tell, but personally I think it’s still worth trying. After all, just
telling them the scientific facts doesn’t seem to be working.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at and appears on the weekly Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.