The Real-Life Threat of an Outbreak May Be What It Takes to Change Minds About Vaccines

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Commentary Family

The Real-Life Threat of an Outbreak May Be What It Takes to Change Minds About Vaccines

Martha Kempner

Though it's hard to change the minds of those opposed to vaccinations, it seems possible that widespread instances of preventable diseases might be enough to sway some individuals.

Research suggests that it is hard to change the minds of those opposed to vaccinations. Providing them with information about the benefits and safety of vaccines doesn’t usually alter their behavior. It seems possible, however, that widespread outbreaks of preventable diseases might actually be enough to sway some individuals—both for political and personal reasons.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took a stand this week in favor of mandatory vaccines after having been previously ridiculed for saying the vaccine “debate” needed balance. In March, Christie was criticized for comments he made about vaccines in an interview in which he said that he and his wife, Mary Pat, chose to vaccinate their children because he thinks “it’s an important part of being sure we protect their health and the public health.”

“I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide,” Christie added.

Christie’s remarks came at in the middle of the the worst measles outbreak the United States has seen in many years. Though the media coverage of the outbreak has died down, the CDC is still getting reports of cases. As of April 10, there have been 159 cases of measles in 18 states since December, 117 of which are linked to an infected patient who visited Disneyland at the end of last year.

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Rewire was among the media outlets to take Gov. Christie to task for these comments, which he gave during a trip to England that many saw as yet another step toward a presidential run. We wrote:

Christie may hope this kind of wishy-washy-appeal-to-both-sides approach may help him win elections, but he’s actually just wrong. There are not two equal sides here. There are not a number of compelling arguments that should be carefully considered. There is not room for debate. There is, in fact, a right answer to whether people should vaccinate their children, and that answer is yes. Public officials should understand that.

Maybe the governor became genuinely concerned about the issue as the measles epidemic grew even larger, or maybe he realized that support for the anti-vaccine movement was a political liability. Whatever the reason, Christie was singing a very different tune in a town hall meeting on Wednesday in Londonberry, New Hampshire. When a participant asked him if he would support conscientious belief objections for parents who want to opt out of mandatory vaccines for school-age children, Christie said no.

He told the woman, “Yeah, no, you can’t count on me for that. I would err on the side of protecting public health through vaccine unless that vaccine has proven to be harmful to the public.” He added that as a parent, “you’re always going to have concerns about your child, but we also have to be concerned about public health.” According to the Huffington Post, he also cited numerous diseases that have been successfully eradicated by vaccination.

Christie’s questioner identified herself as associated with the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) and said she was “concerned with the continuing onslaught of vaccines being imposed on our children.” The NVIC is one of the organizations that has been promoting misinformation about vaccines for years. Though it claims to be providing unbiased information, NVIC continues to suggest that there is a link between autism and vaccines, despite the fact that study after study has shown otherwise. The one study that did find such a link has since been retracted after the author admitted to falsifying his data for financial gain.

This effects of such misinformation are not limited to the United States alone, as Canadian mom Tara Hills explained in a recent post detailing why she and her husband decided not to vaccinate their children. In a blog posted on the Scientific Parent, Hills said they started vaccinations with their first three children on an alternative schedule but became concerned because of what they were reading. They stopped the vaccines for their oldest children and didn’t vaccinate the younger four children at all:

We stopped because we were scared and didn’t know who to trust. Was the medical community just paid off puppets of a Big Pharma-Government-Media conspiracy? Were these vaccines even necessary in this day and age? Were we unwittingly doing greater harm than help to our beloved children? So much smoke must mean a fire so we defaulted to the “do nothing and hope nothing bad happens” position.

Hills wrote that numerous friends and relatives tried to get the couple to change their minds, but those efforts just made her irritated and defensive. She did re-examine her own opinion during the recent measles outbreak, but it wasn’t until someone in her own social circle came down with measles that she really began to have a change of heart. She realized not just that her own unvaccinated children could have gotten the measles, but that they could have easily passed it along to her sister’s toddlers and premature infant.

Hills then sat down with her family doctor to get more information, and the two ultimately decided on a catch-up vaccine schedule. Unfortunately, before that could begin, Hills’ youngest child contracted pertussis—also known as whooping cough—and her other children quickly followed suit. The disease causes uncontrollable coughing fits. According to Hills, her children were choking so hard they would gag or vomit. The family was quarantined and the children put on strong antibiotics. They are on the road to recovery, but the experience was transformative. She wrote:

I said before that the irony isn’t lost on me that I’m writing this from quarantine. For six years we were frozen in fear from vaccines, and now we are frozen because of the disease … I am not looking forward to any gloating or shame as this “defection” from the antivaxx camp goes public, but, this isn’t a popularity contest. Right now my family is living the consequences of misinformation and fear. I understand that families in our community may be mad at us for putting their kids at risk. I want them to know that we tried our best to protect our kids when we were afraid of vaccination and we are doing our best now, for everyone’s sake, by getting them up to date.

Of course no one should “gloat” after seven children became very ill, as Hills wrote. And no one should make these parents feel bad for their previous decisions or their current one. Still, it is comforting to know that even those parents who were once defensive anti-vaxxers can come to see the facts and the importance of vaccines, and that, as Hills put it, “We can’t take it back … but we can learn from this and help others the same way we have been helped.” Hopefully other parents will follow suit and change their minds, without their children or loved ones falling ill.

Gov. Christie’s change of heart is also encouraging, even if it turns out his revelations were more about politics than science. It’s good to see that those potentially running for office have done the political math and decided to side with public health.

Again, we know from research that facts alone are often not enough to change minds on this issue. Unfortunately, it seems like what does the job is fear—whether it’s the fear of your own kids getting sick, the fear of making someone else’s kids sick, or the fear that your voters may think you’re not doing enough to protect their kids from preventable diseases. As an instructor, I have always been opposed to fear-based education for students. That said, in this particular case, a healthy dose of fear for parents and politicians might be just what we need. It is, after all, what the anti-vaccination crowd has used to propel their misinformation forward. We just have to hope no more kids get sick in the process.