A new study has shown it’s possible to persuade members of our community who oppose vaccines to change their opinion by confronting them with the costs of their hesitation.
Many people around the world have never seen iron lungs, smallpox scars, or the blindness caused by measles. For some, not seeing these physical reminders makes it harder to weigh up the risks and benefits of vaccination.
Researchers from Brigham Young University in the US surveyed nearly 600 students with diverse positions on vaccination, and found that meeting a person with first-hand experience of a vaccine-preventable illness could provide an opportunity for a rethink.
It’s wild that measles is making a booming comeback after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had optimistically set a target for its elimination within the country’s borders in the early eighties.
Harder to believe still, that the CDC’s goal was actually met in 2000 as experts declared the disease was no longer endemic, meaning new cases would primarily come from abroad.
Polio’s story is much the same. In the 1950s, thousands of individuals risked being paralysed by the disease. Thanks to vaccination, this is also an illness few of us will ever encounter in our lifetimes.
Where most people were once keen to stick to vaccination schedules, today an increasing number of people are asking if the risks are really worth it.
“Vaccines are victims of their own success,” says microbiologist Brian Poole.
“They’re so effective that most people have no experience with vaccine preventable diseases. We need to reacquaint people with the dangers of those diseases.”
To test the extent to which an emotional reminder of ‘unfashionable’ diseases could work, researchers solicited the help of 56 college students who admitted to being somewhat dubious about vaccines in a survey.
Finding students with such a perspective probably wasn’t much of a challenge, since they largely came from a part of Utah where vaccine coverage was among the lowest in the country.
An additional 369 students who expressed confidence in the benefits of vaccines also participated for course credits. Both groups included a number of volunteers enrolled in a course that featured content on vaccinations.
The combined sample was randomly divided into one of two groups. One half would interview a person diagnosed with an auto-immune disease; the other would talk to a person who had experience of a disease that could have been prevented by a modern vaccination program.
Both groups asked the same nine questions, seeking details on the type of illness they had, its impact on their lives, their family, and their finances.
The responses had quite an effect on some of the students.
“The pain was so bad that she ended up at a pain management clinic where they did steroid shots into her spine,” reported a student who had interviewed a lady with shingles, a persistent effect from chicken pox.
“The pain meds didn’t even touch her pain, even the heavy ones. For months, she couldn’t leave the house.”
A follow-up survey re-evaluated the volunteer’s attitudes towards vaccines, while touching on their experience with their interview subject.
Of the 19 individuals who weren’t studying vaccinations as part of their college curriculum and who also interviewed somebody who’d had a vaccine-preventable illness, 13 changed their minds in favour of vaccination.
Studies that included information on vaccinations also seemed to help, with all five hesitant students enrolled in a vaccine-related course shifting their opinions.
The numbers themselves aren’t exactly earth-shattering, and it’s important to keep in mind the study was confined to a rather limited an potentially ‘WEIRD’ demographic.
But taken in line with the growing pool of research claiming human narratives need to be at the centre of health education, this study shows the role personal story-telling can play in controlling the spread of disease.
“If your goal is to affect people’s decisions about vaccines, this process works much better than trying to combat anti-vaccine information,” says Poole.
Let’s hope one day finding anybody who can tell such a story will be impossible.
This research was published in Vaccines.