How to change skeptical parents’ minds about vaccines

Childhood vaccinations are a necessary part of keeping kids healthy, but there are still thousands of American parents who doubt their safety and efficacy. It’s tempting to argue with people who ignore the science on vaccine safety, but recent studies suggest there might be a better way to change their minds.

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Researchers at the University of Illinois completed a study recently that found people are more likely to view vaccines in a positive way when they’re simply presented with the reality of the illnesses vaccines prevent. For the experiment, they divided people into groups and presented them with different information about vaccines.

One group was given research on the absence of a link between autism and vaccines, while another was presented with a parent’s description of what it’s like to have a child with measles, photos of kids with mumps and warnings about the importance of vaccination. Shockingly, the biggest positive change in opinion came from vaccine skeptics who were given the opportunity to review the anecdotes and photos.

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“What’s going on with anti-vaccination parents, we think, is because they haven’t seen kids with measles and mumps, those consequences aren’t that real to them,” says Zach Horne, a graduate student who worked on the study. So, what does that mean for regular people like us? It means our best course of action in trying to persuade our vaccine-averse friends and loved ones to get immunized is to present them with additional information, rather than trying to prove their existing ideas wrong.

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One argument we see over and over again is people who say diseases like measles or mumps aren’t that bad, or even that kids need to get those illnesses in order to bolster their immune system. In reality, that idea could not be farther from the truth.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates about one in 20 measles patients also gets pneumonia and that one in 1,000 faces potentially life-threatening encephalitis. In fact, out of every 1,000 children who contract the measles, one to two will die. Not to mention, measles presents with this horrifying rash:

a young boy with a severe measles rash

Image via CDC / Public Health Image Library

Similarly, very few parents today have ever dealt with mumps. The CDC cautions that mumps can also cause encephalitis, as well as meningitis and even permanent hearing loss. Plus, it’s characterized by painful and severe facial swelling like this:

a young boy with facial swelling from the mumps

Image via CDC / Public Health Image Library

Obviously there are lot more illnesses to worry about than just measles and mumps, but the point is to focus on whatever illness is in question, rather than only trying to convince people on the science of vaccines. Scientists researched, worked and sacrificed to come up with the modern medical advances we take for granted today, and it might just be that the only way to get people to take that seriously is to remind them exactly what we’re dealing with.

Scary vaccine stories are plentiful, but actual children with the mumps are not. We have to stop treating these illnesses as abstract and start taking them seriously. It will take more than just telling people vaccines are good to convince them that it’s true, and we have to put in the effort to educate our peers if we hope to continue living in a world where these illnesses are rare.