Most People Who Try To Persuade Anti-Vaxxers Fail. But Scientists Just Discovered A Better Way.

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Scientific evidence doesn’t sway them. Neither do doctors or government officials. And vilifying them often backfires. So if you know a parent who’s skeptical about the safety of vaccines, how can you actually convince them to change their mind?

Emphasizing how scary it can be when children come down with a preventable disease may be the best way to help anti-vaccine people understand the real risks of their stance, according to new research published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.

In order to reach that conclusion, a team of researchers recruited a group of 315 people and tested their preexisting attitudes about vaccine safety. Then, they divided participants into three random groups. One group received information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about the total lack of evidence linking vaccines to autism. Another received more personal information about the consequences of failing to vaccinate children, including photos of sick kids and a first-person account from a mother whose child got the measles. The control group, meanwhile, received information about an unrelated topic.

Megan Campbell, the woman who wrote the material used in the second group, described what it was like when her infant son battled a disease that can be life-threatening in small children. “We spent three days in the hospital fearing we might lose our baby boy,” Campbell wrote. “He couldn’t drink or eat, so he was on an IV, and for a while he seemed to be wasting away.”

Hearing that story, and imagining what it would be like to be in Campbell’s shoes, seemed to do the trick. When researchers did a follow-up survey on participants’ attitudes about vaccination, there was a significant change among the group that read her account and looked at the photos. Compared to the first group — which only read information from the CDC — the second group’s approval ratings for vaccines increased five times more.

Therefore, the researchers conclude, “rather than attempting to dispel myths about the dangers of vaccinations, we recommend that the very real dangers posed by serious diseases like measles, mumps and rubella be emphasized. They point out this might be more effective because anti-vaccine parents’ skepticism about immunization stems from the desire to keep their kids safe.

It’s just one study, of course, and the sample size is relatively small. Still, the findings echo the position that some medical experts have taken as the national conversation about vaccines has intensified in the wake of a large measles outbreak in California this year.

Tara Smith, an associate professor of epidemiology at Kent State University who leads an emerging infections laboratory, told CNN earlier this year that scientists are facing a “conundrum” as they try to figure out “how to best display and describe the science that’s out there without making people dig in even further to their anti-vaccine views.”

“So I think it’s those breakthrough disease outbreaks like we’re seeing now that do bring parents back to realizing one in 1,000 kids with measles could die and several get measles encephalitis and pneumonia so they realize … just how deadly and how serious it can be,” Smith said.

Before the development of the MMR vaccine that protects against it, measles used to send about 48,000 Americans to the hospital every year. It’s particularly dangerous for babies, who can suffer from lung infections or even lifelong brain damage in some cases. But many parents — and even some doctors — who grew up after measles was mostly eradicated simply don’t recognize its potential dangers.

That’s why some health experts also say it’s important to emphasize that some people really do die from the measles, which vaccine skeptics sometimes downplay as a condition that isn’t actually that serious. Just last month, for instance, U.S. health officials confirmed that a young woman with a compromised immune system died as a result of complications from this disease.