Highlighting facts about the dangers of diseases can positively change sceptical parents’ attitudes to immunisation as opposed to approaches that focus on debunking vaccine myths, say US researchers.
They say they have identified both the most effective and the least impactful approaches to changing the minds of parents who are sceptical about vaccinating their children.
Their study comes in the wake of a tripling in the number of measles cases in the US from 2013-14 and a serious outbreak of the disease in South Wales during 2013.
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The trend of parents refusing to vaccinate their children, especially against mumps and measles, can be traced back to the MMR scare sparked by a now discredited research paper published in 1998.
The authors of the new study, from the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Illinois, concluded that sceptics could be convinced to have their children vaccinated if the argument was presented in a certain way.
“It’s more effective to accentuate the positive reasons to vaccinate and take a non-confrontational approach”
Put simply, they said telling parents their fear of vaccinations was uninformed and erroneous did not change minds.
It was more effective to remind them that measles is a terrible disease and that they can protect their children by vaccinating them, they said in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
In the study, 315 adults from throughout the US were randomly divided into three groups. People with positive and negative attitudes toward vaccines were equally represented in each of the three groups.
One group read official material saying all children should be vaccinated for measles, mumps and rubella, and explaining that MMR was safe and effective. The material – published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – also said that while some parents worry the vaccine causes autism, many studies had shown that no such link exists.
However, this approach did not change attitudes at all, the researchers said. The outcome was the same for the control group, whose members were given a statement to read that was not about either healthcare or vaccines.
The final group read materials that described the dangers of measles, mumps and rubella, and explained how a vaccine could prevent these diseases.
The materials included photographs of children with the diseases and the group also read a paragraph by a mother whose 10-month-old son experienced a life-threatening bout of measles.
Among group members who were sceptical about or very opposed to vaccines, the last approach substantially increased support for vaccination, said the researchers.
“They’re persuadable by the positive argument, but not by the head-on attack”
Senior study author Professor Keith Holyoak said: “It’s more effective to accentuate the positive reasons to vaccinate and take a non-confrontational approach – ‘here are reasons to get vaccinated’ – than directly trying to counter the negative arguments against vaccines.”
He said the underlying reasons behind immunisation sometimes got forgotten during the “polarising debate on whether the vaccine has side effects”.
“Try not to be directly confrontational,” he said. “Try to find common ground, where possible, and build on that.”
Professor Holyoak noted that while some people held very extreme anti-vaccination beliefs, many more had heard that vaccines were controversial and could be persuaded either way.
“They’re persuadable by the positive argument, but not by the head-on attack,” he added.