Editorial: How should our schools approach anti-vaxxers?

In the decade starting in 2001, a median of 60 cases of measles were reported each year. That number rose to 220 in 2011, and spiked to 667 in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The most recent outbreak, with a reported 1,241 cases so far in 2019, prompted state legislation to abolish a vaccination exemption based on religious beliefs. The epidemic spread largely in Orthodox Jewish communities in and around New York City.

The number of parents now objecting to that legislation — and to the idea that vaccinations keep their children, and other children they encounter, safe — shows that disturbing myths about dangers associated with vaccinations remain all too prevalent.

A study published in 2018 in the journal “Health Psychology” examined “psychological factors that might motivate people to reject scientific consensus around vaccination.”

The study measured anti-vaccination attitudes in a sample of more than 5,300 people in 24 countries. Results showed that such attitudes were highest among people who believed in conspiracy theories. The authors found that demographic variables, including education, did not largely factor in their attitudes. Providing information on why vaccines are safe did little to change people’s beliefs, the authors said. It can even have a “boomerang effect,” further entrenching anti-vaxxers’ beliefs.

So how can schools convince skeptical parents that it is safe to vaccinate their children?

A 2015 study titled “Countering antivaccination attitudes” published in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America” noted that myths about the safety of vaccinations have led to a decline in vaccination rates and the re-emergence of measles in the U.S. The authors found the best approach to countering anti-vaccination attitudes was to make the parents understand the consequences of failing to vaccinate their children. Trying to debunk the conspiracy theories that have flourished in the age of unfiltered information on social media is less effective.

“The finding suggests that education about the risks posed by failing to vaccinate can have meaningful effects on vaccination attitudes,” the authors of the study wrote.

Highlighting the severity of diseases like measles, mumps and rubella is essential in potentially swaying skeptical parents.

“Measles is so contagious that if one person has it, 90% of the people close to the person who aren’t immune will also be infected,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of CDC, who served as director of the agency’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases from 2006 to 2015.

Dr. Schuchat’s comment came during a conference call in 2015 during a measles outbreak. In 2013, she noted, about 145,700 people died from measles worldwide. That seems unfathomable at a time when it’s so easily preventable. She said 28% of young children who had measles in the U.S. required hospital treatment. Complications such as a pneumonia, lifelong brain damage or deafness can result from measles, she said.

“Maintaining high vaccination coverage is very important and it’s the best protection we have against disease outbreaks,” she said.

Dr. Christopher Swingle wrote in 2018 in the medical journal “Missouri Medicine” that the anti-vaccination beliefs have historically gained most ground when the childhood infectious diseases have lost visibility. He also argued that it’s best to avoid confrontational arguments with anti-vaxxers, and instead clearly articulate the consequences refusing to vaccinate can lead to.

The World Health Organization says vaccination currently prevents 2 million to 3 million deaths a year and an additional 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved.

Parents all want what’s best for their children and there will never be universal agreement on how that should be accomplished. But the science and evidence on vaccinations is irrefutable.