Pro-Vaccine Messages Don’t Work


Provocative pro-vaccination messages fail to improve the likelihood that parents will consider getting their children vaccinated  according to a study published yesterday in Paediatrics.

The study found that presenting parents, who had already declared concerns over getting their children vaccinated, were not convinced by the use of vaccine facts, images and stories used as part of CDC public health campaigns to increase vaccine take up.

In fact, the study found that use of these promotional materials increase parent concerns about vaccines and can lead to reduced vaccination intention.

This is both surprising and concerning given the high levels of local and national government funding in the US which is channelled in to pro-vaccine campaign materials. The CDC spend between $8 Million and $12 million a year on pro-vaccine materials.

So what does this mean? Well interestingly the study also looked at attempts to debunk the ‘vaccines cause autism’ theory amongst those parents who held misconceptions about links between vaccination and autism. The researchers found that the evidence they provided against parent’s concerns about autism successfully altered parent’s views. But this did not result in parents becoming pro vaccines. Instead, parents cited a new reason behind their vaccine concerns and now expressed even lower rates of intent to get their kids vaccinated.

Study author Brendan Nyhan suggests that by exposing parents to stories of ill children and having the dangers of not having vaccinations graphically spelled out may lead to parents thinking more generally about harm that could come to their child. This may then lead parents to be become suspicious and avoid anything that could harm their child, which in their mind includes vaccines.

What is clear then is that health authorities need to be more careful about the messages they are putting out into the community. Perhaps a larger focus on improving patient doctor relationships will provide improved results, though many believe that peer groups play the most important part. In Emily Brunson in 2013 published a report suggesting if a 25% of a patient’s peer group advised against the government’s vaccine schedule, then parents would avoid it.

It is hard to say how the CDC and other bodies should try to engage with social groups who may err towards not getting their children vaccinated. After all, if peer groups are more influential than campaigns, how can we reach the peer groups to begin with?

Fortunately the study only suggests that provocative pro-vaccine messages seem to have a detrimental effect on patient’s views. A more neutral approach may be the key to accessing patients who are sitting in the middle of the vaccines debate.

Lastly, no debate over vaccinations and the public would be complete without the token soundbite from the anti-vaccines camp. Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the questionable National Vaccine
Information Center, has reported to NBC news that any attempt to inform or influence the public in ragards to vaccines “is counter-productive because most Americans are inclined to value freedom of thought and belief and resist being told what to think, believe or do.”

Here though perhaps Fisher has missed the point. The research not mean to coerce the public, but merely present to them scientifically creditable information about vaccines.

Nor does anti vaccine rocker Michael Belkin’s comment to NBC that the research proves that patients “they believe that the government is lying”. A more plausible suggestion is, as the authors suggest, parent’s are merely reverting to a protective state when presented with possible harms that could befall their children.

Find the paper here, or Brunson’s paper on social networks and vaccine decisions here. See the NBC News report here.

Here is some anti-vaccine styled rock courtesy of Michael Belkin and The Refusers:

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