Vaccines Are Critical. Here’s How You Can Help Spread the Word.

April 27, 2020

In the midst of a pandemic, caused by a new virus without a vaccine, we're seeing a specter more commonly experienced by our ancestors. Lockdowns, quarantines, social distancing and other non-pharmaceutical interventions have swept the nation, meant to slow the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 enough so that our healthcare system will not be overwhelmed by serious cases and amplify the death rate. Seeing firsthand what these emerging infections can do, and what generations of humans went through before vaccines were available, will surely mark the end of the anti-vaccine movement. Right?

While this may be a logical conclusion, anti-vaccine sentiment does not necessarily follow scientific logic. Even now, many prominent anti-vaccine leaders are suggesting that the response to COVID-19 is overblown and unnecessary; that we should just allow the virus to proliferate and rely on herd immunity to protect us; and that government officials and scientists are lying to the public. The fact is that many are not skeptical of vaccines because of science, but due to a wide variety of reasons—and therefore science alone does not always change minds.

If you're thinking about discussing vaccines with friends and family, or on social media, it helps to have an understanding of some of the varied reasons people may be hesitant about vaccines. First, anti-vaccine sentiment isn't a black-and-white issue, but rather a spectrum of belief. Only a small percentage of people are completely against vaccines—and their minds may never be changed. This includes the leaders of the movement: individuals like lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., former TV producer Del Bigtree, disgraced former physician Andrew Wakefield and others who drive the spread of anti-vaccine disinformation.

But a larger group are perhaps unsure about one or a few vaccines—often the human papillomavirus (HPV) and influenza vaccines are in this category, as the HPV vaccine has been a key target of the anti-vaccine movement and influenza is one of our least effective vaccines—while accepting other vaccines as necessary. Other individuals may not know what to believe. They may be “fence-sitters” who have heard both good and bad things about vaccination and are not sure how to sort through that information and determine what is valid. (For a thorough review of the individuals involved in the movement's leadership and the typical arguments they make, I suggest this review.)

A spotted vaccine delivery vehicle displays the message, "MEASLES MUST GO", on its side.
A spotted vaccine delivery vehicle displays the message, "Measles Must Go" on its side. Source: CDC.

Before jumping into any conversation about vaccines, consider your motivation and audience. Responding to misinformation about vaccines posted by a stranger on a public Facebook feed is very different from discussing vaccine fears with a close friend, but both should be done with care. In the former case, it is unlikely you would change the mind of the person posting, particularly if they have no relationship with you. We are much more likely to value information that comes from those we know and trust: family, friends, teachers, pastors, etc. But what a comment addressing the misinformation may do is influence any “lurkers” reading the post to rethink the material presented and recognize that others do not accept it.

For those who are asking legitimate questions about vaccination, either online or in person, I like the C.A.S.E. method. As a first step, you can corroborate their concerns about vaccines to put them at ease and let them know you're not judging them: “I understand that it can be difficult to sort through information about vaccines. There's a lot of confusion out there.” Most vaccine-hesitant parents are only trying to do what is best for their children; they just aren't convinced that vaccination is best.  You can tell them about yourself and your background studying microbiology and infectious diseases. Ask what their specific fears are about vaccines, and address the science behind their concerns. Finally, explain why you believe vaccines are important, and why you get them for yourself and, if applicable, family members.

These conversations can be difficult. They can be awkward. And they can be alienating and often frustrating. As scientists, we often are misled into thinking that the only variable that makes individuals choose to eschew vaccines is that they simply lack information about them—and if they are provided with good information, they will make good choices. This is the central idea of the information deficit model of science communication, and while the idea is appealing to scientists, this simply isn't true for most people. Some strongly distrust scientific and medical institutions; the long shadow of unethical research carried out on marginalized populations still lingers, and may lead individuals to be skeptical or dismissive of research findings. Others may have had poor experiences with medical professionals, or know of such experiences by others in their influential social circles. And having others in one's social network, either in person or online, who are anti-vaccine can be influential as well. If one associates holding a vaccine-skeptical stance with being in an “in” group socially, it can be more difficult to alter that stance.  Be aware that these pre-existing biases may mean some talking past each other in search of common ground.

If you do choose to engage, remember that tone matters. Using sarcasm and rudeness in a conversation with others is likely to close minds to whatever you are saying. If you feel you can't do this at some point in a conversation, consider bowing out respectfully rather than resorting to insults. This is an area where kindness and empathy, coupled with science, may help. But, it may not. I always approach these conversations knowing that despite everything I can provide about the history and science of infectious disease, it may not be enough to overcome an individual's vaccine fears or entrenched beliefs. These types of conversations are not for everyone.

Luckily, there are plenty of other ways to promote vaccines if the thought of these conversations makes you uncomfortable. Sharing your vaccine stories is a simple act that can raise awareness among friends and relatives. Get a flu vaccine every year? Share it on your social media sites and help normalize it. Stories about possible harm from vaccines spread quickly on social media, but because “we were vaccinated and got nothing but this protective immune response” isn't as dramatic, those stories aren't shared as frequently. You can also write op-eds for local or national publications to support vaccines. These articles are particularly important in states that may be considering changes to their vaccine mandates, which often bring out vocal anti-vaccine activists to oppose tighter regulation or support loosening mandates. To this end, you can also call, email or make an appointment to speak to your state representatives and let them know why you believe they should support vaccines.

We are experiencing what a world lacking a single vaccine for a serious infectious disease looks like, following a year in which the United States experienced the greatest number of measles cases in a generation. There's no better time to stand up for the importance of vaccines than now.

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Author: Tara C. Smith, Ph.D.

Tara C. Smith, Ph.D.
Tara C. Smith, Ph.D., is a professor of epidemiology at the Kent State University College of Public Health. Her research generally focuses on zoonotic infections.