I’ve written before about the importance of vaccines and vaccination. Despite copious actual scientific evidence, some folks, for reasons or no reason, refuse to vaccinate their children. Vaccines are known to have adverse effects – the CDC page on the topic is worth your time. A recent post at Kos caught my attention for addressing the anti-vaxer phenomenon.
But pseudoscience can gain a life of its own, divorced from facts or evidence. An entire anti-vax profession had developed, it now depended on hyping the danger to sell books and generate page views. This professional class of anti-vaxxars spun ever more elaborate conspiracies and ominous consequences to explain away the growing body of evidence against them and short circuit skepticism in the minds of frightened parents, and they haven’t stopped since.
Some smart folks realized the anti-vaxers are a problem. In recent years, we’ve seen a rise in outbreaks of preventable diseases in the US. Consider the case of the Texas megachurch:
In Texas, a (most likely now formerly) anti-vaccine megachurch is the epicenter of a measles outbreak that so far has infected 20 people.[snip]
The Eagle Mountain International Church is led by pastor Terri Copeland Pearsons, daughter of televangelist Kenneth Copeland. (The church is part of his ministries.) Pearsons claims she’s not anti-vax, but the church does promote faith healing, and in August Pearsons voiced concern over vaccinations and autism, a link which has been thoroughly debunked. Kenneth Copeland has promoted anti-vax and anti-science nonsense on his television show in the past (start at 20:10 into the video).
Apparently, the measles virus was introduced by a visitor to the church who had recently traveled overseas (a common way the virus gets into the population). All these measles cases are reported to have been in families that chose not to vaccinate, and all the children infected to have been home-schooled.
This church was not an isolated case – all it takes is one person to get the virus and they walk into a room of un-vaccinated people. Measles can kill. It can lead to other problems.
So, some very bright folk realizing this is a problem decided to test ways to counter anti-vaxer nonsense. It did not go well.
According to a major new study in the journal Pediatrics, trying to do so may actually make the problem worse. The paper tested the effectiveness of four separate pro-vaccine messages, three of which were based very closely on how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) itself talks about vaccines. The results can only be called grim: Not a single one of the messages was successful when it came to increasing parents’ professed intent to vaccinate their children. And in several cases the messages actually backfired, either increasing the ill-founded belief that vaccines cause autism or even, in one case, apparently reducing parents’ intent to vaccinate.
My personal theory is that public health campaigns in earlier eras had an easier sell. People had seen the effects of measles, mumps, rubella and polio. They’d seen people suffer, they knew people who had died from these diseases. A vaccine to prevent suffering that people see and experience is an easy sell.
But don’t live in that world. We live in a world (at least those of us in North America) where diseases are manageable. The flu is treated as miserable, but manageable disease – we endure it but it’s not deadly (nevermind that people die from the flu every year). Parents who refuse to vaccinate their kids are making a bad choice for a seemingly rational reason – nothing in their experience tells them diseases are deadly; they hear about vaccines causing problems and conclude that the vaccine is the greater risk. The now thoroughly debunked autism claim is a good example of this dynamic at work. If your entire experience of disease has consistently been you get sick, it sucks, you get better, you move on then the threat of lifelong ailment like autism has a huge impact. To my mind, it’s a form of sample bias.
I’m fairly certain I don’t have a solution. I do have some thoughts. If, tomorrow, there were a definitive, workable vaccine for cancer, people would be knocking down the doors of clinics to get it. Why? Because people know cancer kills and even those it doesn’t kill the treatment is thoroughly miserable. The problem is we think of communicable diseases (mostly) as the common cold, not cancer. Our frame of reference is wrong. So we make bad decisions. Fixing that means fixing the frame of reference.