Scientists Have Found A Way To Win Around Antivaxxers That Actually Works

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Updated 02/03/2021: This article has been updated in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Vaccine hesitancy continues to be a major hurdle in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic, with some surveys suggesting up to 1 in 3 Americans are hesitant to receive a vaccine. While the problem is complex and driven by a whole range of forces, previous research has shown there are some relatively easy ways to show people the importance of receiving a vaccine. 

A research project from 2019 showed 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. In other words, personal stories and emotional responses can be just as important as facts and hard information. 

“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 in March 2019, 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.”

The situation with COVID-19 vaccinations may be a little different, considering the damage of the disease is more immediately visible compared to other vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles. Nevertheless, the research still highlights how hard facts alone might not always be the key to tackling vaccine hesitancy.

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