Pro-Vaccine Messages Actually Backfire, Study Finds
NBC NEWS - Public health messages aimed at boosting childhood vaccination rates may be backfiring, a new report finds.
efforts that use scientific studies, vaccine facts and images and
stories of disease-sickened kids actually increased fears about vaccine
side effects among some parents. Even when they successfully refuted
claims about a link between vaccines and autism, they made parents who
were the most wary less inclined to inoculate their children.
That's according to a
study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, which raises questions
about the effectiveness of well-funded public health vaccination
campaigns and the difficulty of swaying vaccine views, particularly when
messages were working, they should increase the intent to vaccinate,"
said Brendan Nyhan, a Dartmouth College political scientist and media
critic who led the study. "This highlights the extent to which we tend
to overrate how persuasive facts and evidence are in all kinds of
advocates say the study correctly spotlights the suspicion that some
parents have for public health claims about vaccines — and their
resentment of efforts to spin the message.
is a big mistake for public health officials to assume that those
resisting public health messaging about vaccines and diseases are
ignorant, uneducated, ‘anti-science' and that they lack social
conscience," said Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine
Information Center and a frequent critic of vaccines.
Belkin, 60, a Seattle vaccine critic whose infant daughter died in 1998
after recommended shots, said parents want to make up their own minds.
"People are skeptical about drug companies. Why should they not be skeptical about vaccines?" he said.
and colleagues looked at messages designed to reduce vaccine
misperceptions and increase vaccination rates with the
measles-mumps-rubella, or MMR, shots. They conducted two waves of email
surveys of a nationally representative sample of nearly 1,760 U.S.
parents of children younger than 18 in June and July 2011.
Parents were asked about
their vaccine views first, and later exposed to one of four messages:
information about the lack of evidence that the MMR vaccine causes
autism; a vaccine pamphlet about the risks of getting the diseases;
photos of children affected with the diseases; and a first-person
narrative from a mom whose son got measles. A control group also
received non-vaccine related information.
Overall, none of the messages
increased parents' intent to vaccinate future children, the study found.
Those who supported vaccines still planned to get shots for their kids
and those who didn't weren't persuaded to change.
debunking discredited claims of a link between autism and the MMR
vaccine successfully corrected parents' views, but it didn't budge their
intent to vaccinate, the study found. In fact, among those with least
favorable views of vaccines, the chance that they would vaccinate future
kids fell from 70 percent to 45 percent.
"As it was debunked, their objections started to take different forms," Nyhan said.
the same time, parents exposed to photos or stories of kids sickened by
measles, mumps or rubella became more worried about the side effects of
the vaccine to prevent the diseases. That resulted in what Nyhan said
is a known "danger-priming effect."
you are exposed to images or stories about sick children, it may be
easier to bring to mind other ways children could get sick or face risks
or harms," he said.
The study, which used existing
materials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,
underscores the difficulty of communicating about vaccines, said
Kristine Sheedy, the associate director who heads the agency's efforts.
Overall, the CDC spends between $8 million and $12 million each year on a
wide range of vaccination messages focused on topics from childhood
inoculations to flu shots for the elderly.
study reinforces a few things. One is just how complicated this is,"
she said. "It's not a problem that can be solved with a sound bite or a Q
While the vast majority of Americans favor vaccination — more than 90 percent of
kids get the MMR vaccine on the recommended schedule — many have
concerns about vaccine effects and a tiny minority — less than 1 percent
— don't vaccinate their children at all.
Those parents may be the biggest concern. Health officials worry that growing pockets of
unvaccinated children across the U.S. are behind an increase in
measles, for instance, which was considered eradicated in America in
2000. Last year, at least 175 cases were reported in the U.S.
isn't the first study to find that facts can backfire. CDC officials
already know that scare tactics don't work, Sheedy said. "If you go too
heavy on the fear appeal, you do have the opposite effect of what you
Instead, parents who are questioning
vaccination may be more persuaded by their own doctors than by
government messages. That's a view echoed by Dr. Ari Brown, a Texas
pediatrician and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. She
said an AAP survey found that the best approach with vaccine-hesitant
parents was personal.
"It was ‘I
am a doctor and I am a mom and I vaccinate my own kids and I wouldn't do
anything differently with yours,'" she said. "At the end of the day,
the science is not going to convince them. What convinces them is the
But even doctors might
not be as influential as parents' friends and family, noted Emily
Brunson, a medical anthropologist at Texas State University in San
Marcos. Her research shows that attitudes toward vaccination — positive
or negative — are contagious. In one recent study, she found that if
more than 25 percent of a parent's peer group advised deviating from the
government-promoted vaccination schedule, that's what parents would do.
"It's way more complicated than just going to your health provider," she said.
new study reiterates the importance of testing the actual effects of
public health messages before rolling them out to a wide audience, Nyhan
said. More research is also needed to understand when parents actually
make vaccination decisions and the best ways to influence them, Brunson
But Barbara Loe Fisher,
Michael Belkin and other vaccine critics resent the notion that parents
who oppose vaccines need to have their views influenced or "corrected" —
especially by government health officials.
is counterproductive because most Americans are inclined to value
freedom of thought and belief and resist being told what to think,
believe or do," Fisher said.
And one other thing,
added Belkin, 60, who is the lead singer and guitarist for The Refusers,
a popular band that plays vaccine protest songs.
"The message is backfiring," he said. "Basically, they believe that the government is lying."