The vaccination debate has certainly reached fever pitch in the last year, thanks to the widespread measles outbreak that erupted in California last December, and it doesn't seem to be letting up any time soon. However, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says there is a way to get the small yet growing number of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children to reconsider their stance. The study found that anti-vaxxers are more likely to change their views on vaccination when reminded of just how deadly the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) can be. But if their fears over vaccine safety are challenged, then you can kiss your whole argument goodbye.
Senior study author Keith Holyoak, professor of psychology at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), says that the perpetuation of misinformation about vaccine fears is likely to blame for the growing anti-vaccination movement, and in turn, the growing rate of MMR cases. "Myths about the safety of vaccinations have led to a decline in vaccination rates and the reemergence of measles in the United States, calling for effective pro-vaccine messages to curb this dangerous trend," writes Holyoak in the study findings.
In fact, the recent outbreak, which has since been traced back to California's Disneyland theme park, was one of the largest outbreaks of measles in history, resulting in 183 reported cases to date. In the months since, medical experts have been coming down hard on the anti-vaxxer movement. In June, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law that mandates all school-aged children be immunized in order to enroll in public school. Soon after, the American Medical Association recommended against non-medical exemptions for vaccinations nationwide, based on the growing number of "personal belief exemptions" being made against vaccines.
During the study, Holyoak and his colleagues studied 315 adults from around the U.S., each with varying opinions on vaccination. While one-third of the participants had generally favorable views about it, the rest had some level of skepticism. And of those skeptics, around 10 percent held what were described as extremely negative attitudes towards vaccines.
Study authors then mixed the participants into three different groups. In the first, they were asked to read material from the CDC emphasizing how safe the MMR vaccine is, and that there is in fact no association between autism and vaccination. In the second, parents were given different materials, this time focusing on the dangers of MMR, and how effective the vaccine is. And in both groups, parents were then asked to read a statement from a woman whose 10-month-old son's life was threatened after he contracted measles. (The third group was a control group, asked to read unrelated material on bird feeding.)
In the end, Holyoak writes that those who were presented with the dangers of MMR were far more easily swayed, most likely because they felt less attacked. According to Holyoak:
It's more effective to accentuate the positive reasons to vaccinate and take a non-confrontational approach — 'Here are reasons to get vaccinated' — than directly trying to counter the negative. There was a reason we all got vaccinated: Measles makes you very sick. That gets forgotten in the polarizing debate on whether the vaccine has side effects.
So there you have it: The next time you're toe-to-toe with someone in a heated vaccine debate, the best approach might just be the the one you haven't tried yet.
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