Promoting MMR to anti-vax parents: What works? Kinda nothing.

The MMR vaccine does not cause autism. The guy who initially made that claim made it all up, and literally no one since has found any evidence to support that claim.

We have known this for quite a while now, and yet, the anti-MMR fad is still going, and parents arent vaccinating their kids. And its the *kids* who suffer from their parents poor decisions.

So what are scientists and physicians to do? How can we get the message across to anti-vax parents?

Effective Messages in Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial

Researchers in this paper tried four approaches to educate/get parents to agree to vaccinate their next child with MMR:

  1. Autism Correction-- Text from the CDC on how there is no evidence MMR causes autism
  2. Disease Risk-- Information about what happens to kids who get measles, mumps, and rubella
  3. Disease Narrative-- A brief story from a mom whos baby almost died from measles
  4. Disease Images-- Pictures of kids with measles, mumps, and rubella
  5. A story about bird feeding, as a control

I didnt think #1 would do anything. People who are anti-vax think everything is a big conspiracy, so information from the CDC would mean nothing to them. I thought maybe #2-4 would do something. Basic human empathy, surely people would see pictures of kids suffering from mumps, hear a story from a distraught mom about her baby almost dying from measles, and think 'Oh my god! That could be my baby!' Ive always said "Show anti-vaxers a video of a baby suffering from whooping cough. Its heart-breaking watching them struggle for air. Nobody can see that and think 'Meh, who cares if that happens to my baby.' Nobody."

Surprisingly, the group of people who read #1 was the only group who saw a decrease in the belief that MMR vaccination causes autism. There was no change, however, in that group thinking that MMR can cause 'serious side effects'.

Thats kinda good news, right? Maybe dispelling misinformation really is the key!

Well, when they split the 'Autism Correction' group into people who had low/mid/high favorability for the MMR vaccine, and asked them if they planned to vaccinate their next child, the people who didnt like the MMR vaccine, who now unquestionably knew the MMR vaccine does not cause autism, were still not likely to vaccinate their next child. The number actually decreased from the control group.

Across the other two groups (mid/high favorability of vaccines), intent to vaccinate their next child was already high (>90%), no matter what information group they were in, including the control.

This study tells me three things--

  1. People are really good at justifying their previously held beliefs. This isnt just with vaccines-- any topic people feel strongly about, you can give someone evidence that directly contradicts their beliefs, and all you do is make them believe harder. "Okay, MMR doesnt cause autism, but <insert new reason for not vaccinating kid here>!!!"
  2. People suck at statistics. People think they will win the lottery, but they dont think they will ever be exposed to preventable, deadly diseases. The first thing out of every parents mouth when they are interviewed about their kid getting one of these diseases is "We never thought it would happen to OUR baby!" Showing them pictures of sick kids, literally giving them a story of a mom whos baby almost died because another kid brought measles into a waiting room, cannot overcome "Bad things wont happen to me or my family!"
  3. Its also possible people are kinda stupid on this topic. Viruses, bacteria, vaccines-- these arent things people learn a lot about in high school science. Its possible that in some of the groups, parents misunderstood the disease stories/images, and thought the negative effects were due to the vaccine, not the viruses. Because this was a computer-based survey, there was no one there for them to ask questions. Maybe they just didnt understand what, exactly, they were being presented with.

The good news out of this paper is that people who already dont mind vaccines? They might have reservations and concerns, but they plan on vaccinating their kids.

The bad news is, the people who are anti-vax? None of these approaches helped. One made things worse, despite the fact the group accepted the presented information. So who the hell knows how to help the kids of anti-vaxers. *sigh*

More like this

I don't think this has anything to do with learning about disease specifically; it is more about learning to think critically in general. This is s skill, and like any skill, it has to be taught, coached, and practiced before you will be good at it.

It has always surprised me that critical thinking is NEVER taught directly. Even science education (at the high school level) only teaches it indirectly. this most valuable of skills is completely passed over.

I have two children, one in high school and one about to enter, so I thought I would bring this up and try to judge the level of interest in introducing the topic to the curriculum. It was as if no one I talked to could even understand why I was asking. Very discouraging.

By Daniel Welch (not verified) on 27 May 2014 #permalink

Many thanks for your post, Abbie.

I hope this insightful article (plus its links) will help to answer your question: What works?

Never give up on, nor give in to, the plethora of people who cannot provide even a half-baked epistemologically sound explanation for their strong opinions that defy science and/or evidence.

In freshman year biology, I was the kid who raised his hand to ask if we would be exploring "alternative theories" to evolution like creationism. My teacher tried to repress a smirk and said, 'no, we won't be going over that in this class.' That was the end of it.

The reason I asked the question? A creation 'scientist' came to my youth group in August before I entered high school to present a PowerPoint and answer a lot of questions with answers that already meshed with my belief system.

Although I did well in Biology, it was because I was great at memorizing from a book and a phenomenal test taker. All I cared about was grades and I wasn't about to pick a fight with this teacher. One presenter eagerly addressed all our concerns in church, while the other shoved my question aside.

I'm sure he just didn't want to insult my religious belief, but looking back, I really wish he would have asked me to stay after class and challenge me. I didn't really have a great grasp of what science was. I thought it was a big book of rules. I had never learned to approach knowledge with skepticism, I just credulously believed everything I thought sounded good.

We need to engage students and allow them to question what they know, what they think, and what they do. I made over a decade of stupid decisions, but now I take great joy in being able to prove myself wrong when I have a foolish belief.

Critical thinking is one thing that certain constituencies, notably the extreme religious right, will go absolutely bat s--- crazy to prevent being taught in schools. Once kids start thinking for themselves, and having the tools to do it productively, they are likely to reject extremist dogmas of all kinds, and the promoters of those dogmas know it.

None the less it's always worth a try. One potentially useful way to go about it is by promoting it as a means of fighting "other" types of "radicalism" that the dogmatists already despise.

Realistically, what I think it's going to take, before these frank idiots understand what's at stake, is a large enough outbreak to cause a large number of casualties. A few hundred won't be enough, it will have to be in the thousands in a fairly short time, before the idiots take notice.

That or just make vaccination mandatory under law with no exceptions other than medical exceptions. If we want to tolerate "religious" exceptions, then require them to live in communities that can be quarantined under law in the event of any cases showing up inside or outside.

Tyson: "Science works whether you believe it or not."

Corollary: Bacteria and viruses don't care about your religion.

Why not just engineer an artificial scarcity? Tell communities like Marin, California- "Oh, we don't carry that any more. There's no demand for it." People will clamor for a commodity that's going extinct. Alternatively, bypass the parents altogether.

By Politicalguineapig (not verified) on 29 May 2014 #permalink

Chris D: I don't know where you went to school (or when), but if you went to a public school in the US, then it is entierly likely that your teacher did not speak with you about creationism for fear of either: 1)violating the separation of church and state (given the Supreme Court case that said that teaching creationism is a violation of the 1st amendment) or 2) your parents might get upset and he could be repremanded or fired. Or he could have not cared. It's imposible to tell.

By JustaTech (not verified) on 29 May 2014 #permalink

Try the new old ancient, alternative, tradition medicine:

Cranial Concussive Therapy.

With this group, that'll work better than chit-chat.

By Spectator (not verified) on 06 Jun 2014 #permalink