How to convince skeptical parents that vaccines are safe

WATCH ABOVE: The authors of a new study from the University of Illinois say even the biggest skeptics had a shift in attitude around vaccines after their research. Marianne Dimain has the story. 

Can health officials convince a growing anti-vaxxer movement that vaccines are safe and protect against a handful of childhood diseases? New research suggests there may be a way to reach out to this group of parents on the controversial topic.

Show people images of kids battling measles, mumps and rubella and force them to read first-hand accounts from parents of these sick children, and you may persuade skeptical parents into thinking twice before refusing vaccines for their kids, according to new research out of the University of Illinois.

Anti-vaxxer parents are often focused on the supposed risk of autism’s ties to vaccines – this claim isn’t backed by scientific evidence – but the scientists say that shifting the spotlight onto the repercussions of avoiding vaccination may help turn a corner.

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“Perhaps we need to direct people’s attention to the other aspect of the decision. You may be focused on the risk of getting the shot but there’s also the risk of not getting the shot. You or your child could get measles,” graduate student Zachary Horne said.

READ MORE: How should health officials reverse an anti-vaxxer movement?

Horne, and his psychology professor Dr. John Hummel, collaborated on the study with findings that were published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“We found that directing people’s attention to the risks posed by not getting vaccinated, like getting measles, mumps and rubella, and the complications associated with those diseases, changed people’s attitudes positively towards vaccination – and that was for even the most skeptical participants in the study,” Horne noted.

“Actually, the largest effect sizes were for people who were most skeptical,” he said.

Horne recruited 315 volunteers to share their views on a number of hot-button issues, including vaccination and parents’ willingness to vaccinate their kids.

READ MORE: Anti-vaccination movement means preventable diseases making a comeback

The participants were divvied up into three groups: the first group looked at materials that challenged the anti-vaccination point of view, the second group focused on the fallout of contracting measles, mumps and rubella. This group read accounts from parents and saw pictures of kids sick with the preventable diseases. Finally, the third group – a control group – read about a subject that wasn’t related to vaccines at all.

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The three groups then completed evaluations that forced them to take a stance on vaccination. Turns out, the graphic images of children fallen ill and their parents’ chilling accounts were enough to persuade those who were on the fence about vaccines.

“Of course, the skeptics are the people with the greatest amount of room to move, so in a sense that finding is unsurprising,” Hummel said.

“But it’s also extremely important because those are precisely the people you want to move. That’s the kind of result we were really looking for,” he said.

READ MORE: 6 vaccination myths debunked

The findings are good news: a study conducted last year used similar approaches – providing information that showed anti-vaccine fears were unfounded, along with science-based information about the dangers of these diseases for young children. These tactics failed in turning the tide.

The researchers note that some anti-vaxxers only become more steadfast in their opinion when presented with counter-claims backed by science.

Experts have told Global News that an anti-vaccination movement is gaining traction. Decades ago, witnessing infant deaths from these preventable diseases convinced parents to protect their kids. In recent years, measles, mumps and rubella were nearly virtually wiped out so parents haven’t seen the fallout of these illnesses.

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Pamphlets and awareness campaigns may not be enough to counter these anti-vaxxer claims.  Doctors say they need to be savvier in reconsidering their approach.

“This is not a simple task because a lot of parents for anti-vaccination are aware and opinionated. They believe the risk of being vaccinated is greater than the benefits,”Dr. Marc Ouellette said.

He’s the scientific director of infection and immunity at the Canadian Institutes for Health Research.

READ MORE: What’s in a measles vaccine? 4 things you need to know

The Internet is the key, according to Dr. Ran Goldman, of the B.C. Children’s Hospital.

He says he’s cognizant of where the health care system may have gone wrong in reaching out to parents.

“The anti-vaccination movement is using very proficiently the online platform. They’re able to spread stories that are usually very rare or very powerful and not always based on any scientific evidence,” Goldman said.

READ MORE: Should flu shots be mandatory for health care workers?

That’s why he spearheaded the website, a free resource for parents in Canada and worldwide. It’s not just about vaccinations either.

“Jenny McCarthy reaches 250,000 people on one YouTube video. Physicians can use the same medium to get to the same parents and explain the scientific evidence behind immunization. We didn’t play catch up on time,” he said.

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Read Horne’s full findings here.