Personal Health

Telling the Anti-Vaccine Community They're Wrong Has Been Tried for Years Now, and It Doesn't Work—Here's Another Approach

If we want more people to vaccinate, we should try to understand the concerns anti-vaccine parents have.

Photo Credit: didesign021 / Shutterstock

Texas has become an emerging battleground for the national vaccine debate. The Parents' Right to Know legislation recently filed in the Texas House and Senate would require rates of vaccine exemption for each school to be made public. This bill will undoubtedly be controversial, as the anti-vaccine movement is gaining political footing among Texan elected officials. Events in Texas reflect a wider trend, as the latest Pew poll suggests 17 percent of American are against mandatory vaccination. There’s even an anti-vaccine activist march on Washington planned for March 31. No wonder a recent op-ed depicted the anti-vaxxer movement as “winning." It certainly appears to be spreading.

Neither experts nor the public has been silent in response to anti-vaccine attitudes. In Sanjay Gupta’s op-ed outlining facts about vaccine safety, he referred to anti-vaxxers' justifications as “a whole new level of lunacy.” For many of us, the anti-vaccine movement not only appears anti-science and illogical, but it also poses a real danger to the public.

In over a decade of research on health care in east Africa, I’ve seen people die of preventable causes. I have no doubt of the importance of vaccines. However, as a medical anthropologist, I have to ask: What is the aim of public health approaches depicting anti-vaxxers as lunatics or anti-science? If the point is to preach to the converted, this strategy is likely effective. But if the aim is to convince people hesitant about vaccines, this approach is not only ineffective, but it also further alienates its intended audience, providing more fuel for the anti-vaccine movement.  

One of the things anthropologists do is try to understand people’s lives, experiences and practices. In today’s polarized world (Republican vs. Democrat, pro-life vs. pro-choice, gun control vs. gun rights), it’s a critical skill that enables people to engage productively with others whose ideas or values differ from their own. It’s a particularly useful skill for health problems and challenging settings—anthropologists assisted during the Ebola response. They’ve also been hired to learn about anti-vaxxer rationales and their global scope.

Public stereotypes about the concerns of anti-vaxxers are an inadequate depiction of a tremendously diverse group of people. There are not merely two sides to the vaccine debate. There is a complex spectrum.

In my journeys through parenthood, I’ve come to know many people we might label as “anti-vaxxers.” The label encompasses people who vaccinate on alternate schedules, selectively vaccinate and those who don’t vaccinate at all. Some who don’t vaccinate expect to vaccinate their children when they’re older. I have yet to encounter an anti-vaxxer parent concerned about autism; while clearly they exist, they appear over-represented in the media.

By perpetually painting anti-vaxxers as deluded into believing the same, totally disproven “fact” that vaccines cause autism, scientists, public health and medical professionals and vaccine supporters underestimate or misunderstand the very population they’re trying to engage. Making anti-vaxxers into convenient caricatures causes people to feel disrespected. It certainly doesn’t win them over, and most are tired of being on the defensive instead of being heard.

While some may adhere to what we might call “pseudo-science,” many anti-vaxxers are well-educated and science-literate. If anything, they’re over-informed, versant in many facts, and not just “anti-science." Most have done significant research, and they share information with one another, in part because it is more efficient, and in part because health providers won’t address their concerns. Many parents opting out of (certain) vaccines have questions that their health care providers aren’t really answering.  

Here are some: What scientific studies exist investigating long-term consequences of so many vaccines provided within the first year of life? What are the advantages and disadvantages of alternate vaccine schedules? Why should I vaccinate against chicken pox, an illness so rarely leading to complications or death? Why bother vaccinating against diseases we no longer have in the United States?

These are legitimate questions. They’re questions many health professionals and other informed individuals could answer. But in order to respond to them, first we have to take people hesitant about vaccines seriously, rather than presuming anything about them.

If we want more people to vaccinate, and to combat the spread of the anti-vaxxer movement, we must first learn about the diverse array of concerns under the “anti-vaxxer” umbrella. Second, they should research questions to which they don’t have answers. And finally, they should share their findings in a respectful way, and be ready for follow-up questions. Without respect and relationships, facts alone will do little to improve vaccination rates or thwart the spread of the anti-vaccine movement more broadly.

Noelle Sullivan is an Assistant Professor of Instruction in Global Health Studies and Anthropology at Northwestern University, and a Public Voices Fellow with The Op-Ed Project. Twitter: @ncsullivan.

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