Would a public scare campaign – similar to that used in anti-smoking messaging – cut down the number of people who refuse to have their children vaccinated?
Images of rotting feet and skeletal people sucking on oxygen bottles have discouraged people from taking up cigarettes, so why not graphic images of people crippled by polio or made blind by measles as a persuasion to have your children jabbed?
A new US study – albeit small and limited in scope – suggests this might be the way to go.
Something has to give with the case numbers of measles – an easily preventable disease that can have devastating outcomes – tripling globally in the last year, and emerging as a First World problem.
In the US, measles is now regarded as a public health crisis, one brought on by clusters of people who refused to have themselves or their children vaccinated, largely because of dishonest and untrue information campaigning on social media.
Measles kills about 100,000 people a year, mostly children, and mostly in poorer countries. Twenty-five years ago, 600,000 people annually died. What was a positive trend has begun to turn.
Exposure to suffering the trigger
For the US study, the Brigham Young University researchers enrolled 574 students, 83 of them “vaccine hesitant”. Half the students were asked to interview someone who’d experienced a vaccine-preventable disease such as polio, while the other half (serving as the control group) interviewed someone with an auto-immune disease.
Meanwhile some students were also enrolled in courses that contained intense immune- and vaccine-related curriculum while others were enrolled in a course with no vaccine curriculum.
Researchers found nearly 70 per cent of the students who interviewed someone with a vaccine-preventable disease – and were made privy to their suffering – moved from vaccine hesitant to pro-vaccine by the end of the study, even when they had no exposure to vaccine curriculum.
Overall, 75 per cent of vaccine-hesitant students increased their vaccine attitude scores, with half of those students moving fully into pro-vaccine attitudes.
Interpreting the results
Sounds good, right? Australian experts told The New Daily … well, it’s complicated.
Dr Margie Danchin is a general paediatrician at the Royal Children’s Hospital in the Department of Paediatrics, a senior research fellow at Murdoch Childrens Research Institute (MCRI), and a member of the institute’s Vaccine and Immunisation Research group.
While Dr Danchin said the study was interesting, it was “exploratory at best” – noting that only 14 per cent of students were vaccination-hesitant in the first place. She also said a change in attitude was not the same as a change in behaviour.
Dr Danchin’s said previous research – notably two studies by Dr Brendan Nyhan, Professor of Government at Dartmouth College – had suggested that “using scare tactics and graphic imagery can actually entrench hesitancy, and make people have a lower intention to vaccinate”.
Dr Danchin said vaccination hesitancy was on a continuum, and that a mixture of positive communication strategies, including prompts from GPs, was showing promise. But in a consultation project at the MCRI, where 3 per cent of parents involved had moved from hesitancy to outright refusal, “we didn’t move one of them”.
Julie Leask is a behavioural scientist and professor in the Susan Wakil School of Nursing and Midwifery, Faculty of Medicine and Health, University of Sydney. She said the efficacy of interventions that appeal to fear had not yet been resolved.
“They tend to backfire more among people who are the most stridently against vaccination,” Professor Leask said.
She said they needed to be targeted at the right people – notably politicians.