A new survey shows vaccine education works, but not enough to change behavior of fearful parents

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148559465In a disturbingly coincidental juxtaposition in the current issue of the journal Pediatrics, an article on the benefits of childhood vaccines among the 2009 birth cohort showed that routine immunizations will prevent approximately 42 000 early deaths and 20 million cases of disease while another article highlights the difficulties of getting all those kids vaccinated.

A two-tiered online survey was conducted by a multi-institute group of researchers, led by Dr. Brendan Nyhan, Ph.D., professor of government at Dartmouth College. They surveyed 1759 parents with minor children residing in the U.S., about their attitudes towards children s vaccines. They then administered one of 4 educational interventions: a-lack of evidence that MMR (measles mumps rubella) vaccine causes autism; b-information about the diseases prevented by MMR; 3-images of children with the diseases caused by MMR; d-a dramatic narrative about one child who almost died of measles. Their responses were compared to a no-intervention control group.

The results were disturbing, although hopefully useful for future strategic planning: while information about the absence of a vaccine-autism link reduced parental fears on that topic, it did not lead to an increase in stated plans to vaccinate, and in fact decreased those plans in one segment. The other interventions actually increased parents fears.

"Corrections of misperceptions about controversial issues like vaccines may be counterproductive in some populations," wrote the researchers involved in the Nyhan study. "The best response to false beliefs is not necessarily providing correct information."

ACSH s Dr. Gil Ross was frustrated by this counter-intuitive report: If truthful, calm and rational communication of the [lack of] risks and manifold benefits of children s vaccines doesn t do the job, ie, encouraging parents to get their kids vaccinated, then I don t know what will. It s just possible that some parents have been so inculcated with anti-vaccine conspiracy theories that they are unable to confront the facts even when presented with them in such a well-organized manner. Still, I would not give up on them: there must be some on the cusp, who are resistant at first but will come around with more science-based messages and further consideration. I have no specific advice here, except that we need to keep working to promote public health and reach those resistant parents.