It Turns Out, There Is One Way To Win Around An Anti-Vaxxer

Poole and his team of researchers hope the findings could be used by health agencies and researchers to help improve the public’s appreciation of vaccinations. Zerbor/Shutterstock

A tidal wave of online propaganda and anti-vaxxer myths spread through social media has helped to bolster up the recent revival of measles – over 880 confirmed cases in the US so far this year. These methods have, evidently, done a pretty good job of tricking a considerable number of people into being skeptical about vaccinations, but how easy is it to change their minds back?

It turns out, it’s not as difficult as you might think. A new research project has shown that people who are hesitant towards vaccines can be convinced of their benefits simply by meeting someone who has suffered from a vaccine-preventable disease.

“Vaccines are victims of their own success,” Brian Poole, associate professor of microbiology and molecular biology at Brigham Young University (BYU), said in a statement. “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 reach this conclusion, a team of scientists from BYU surveyed 574 students, with 491 being pro-vaccine and 83 being vaccine-hesitant. Half of the students were asked to interview someone who had experienced a vaccine-preventable disease, such as shingles or polio, while the other half (a control group) interviewed someone with an auto-immune disease that's not prevented by vaccination. These two groups were divided into two more subsets; one that took a course of classes about the science of vaccines and another that took an unrelated course.

Reported in the journal Vaccines, the results showed that 68 percent of vaccine-hesitant students who interviewed someone with a vaccine-preventable disease became more pro-vaccine by the end of the study, even if they had not studied the facts about vaccines. Overall, after the study concluded, 75 percent of vaccine-hesitant students had increasingly positive views about vaccines, with 50 percent of those students fully transitioning to pro-vaccine attitudes.

One of the convinced students, who talked to a person who had suffered shingles, recalled: “The pain was so bad that she ended up at a pain management clinic where they did steroid shots into her spine. The pain meds didn’t even touch her pain... For months she couldn’t leave the house." Another student recalled their experience of their interview by saying: “I dislike the idea of physical suffering so hearing about someone getting a disease made the idea of getting a disease if I don’t get vaccinated seem more real.”

The power of persuasion, even when it comes to scientific subjects, often lies with emotive stories and the pulling of heartstrings, not cold facts. The study suggests that presenting people with facts about the benefits of vaccinations, although still an important tool, is not as effective as exposing them to the pain and suffering caused by preventable diseases. Poole and his team of researchers hope the findings could be used by health agencies and researchers to help improve the public’s appreciation of vaccinations – and, in doing so, save lives.

“If your goal is to affect people’s decisions about vaccines, this process works much better than trying to combat anti-vaccine information,” added Poole. “It shows people that these diseases really are serious diseases, with painful and financial costs, and people need to take them seriously.”

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