Tara Hills vaccinated her first three children on schedule with all the recommended doses. But by the time she got to her fourth, she wasn’t sure anymore that it was the right decision.
“It just filtered into my mind that there was a growing unease, that not everybody was on board with this,” she said.
“It was enough to sow the seeds of doubt. Is this really safe? What if they’re right?”
So she stopped. Hills didn’t change her mind for years — unfortunately for her family, a bit too late. Right after she arranged to have her seven kids’ shots brought up to date in 2015, they all came down with whooping cough.
“It was one of the hardest times in my life, truly, because not only was I dealing with a medical crisis, family, siblings of ours who didn’t vaccinate, their kids had to be put on antibiotics indefinitely. It was scary. It was humiliating. It was awful,” she said.
The now-mother of nine from Arnprior, Ont., a small town outside Ottawa, shared her story this week with the Canadian Immunization Conference and gave doctors and public health experts tips on reaching people like her.
Her message: listen to people’s concerns about vaccination and speak to them with dignity and respect.
Seeds of doubt
Hills didn’t become vaccine-hesitant overnight. She had started to hear conversations at the park and among friends about not vaccinating.
“I was like, that’s a thing? People do that?” she said.
But it was the internet that really changed things, she said. After reading websites and social media, she started to have questions.
“For me, I thought, ‘There’s so much money involved. How can I possibly trust these major pharmaceutical companies?’” said Hills.
She started to worry about vaccine safety and thought that maybe the shots weren’t needed at all so she didn’t let her kids get them.
In this way, Hills was typical, according to anthropologist Ève Dubé, who researches vaccine hesitation at Quebec’s National Institute of Public Health.
“We often blame the internet and social media,” she said. “It’s easier to come across stories of vaccine side effects on social media than a positive story about vaccination.”
These stories are so effective because they speak to emotion, she said.
“If you see a testimony from a mother who says her child was perfectly normal before the vaccine and then everything goes wrong, you can relate to this mother. You can picture yourself in her shoes.”
Dubé continued: “But then, if you see a public health fact sheet with dry statistics and facts, it’s much less powerful and appealing and it’s non-emotional.”
Like Hills, the top concerns of vaccine-hesitant parents are about safety and whether the shots are needed anymore since many childhood diseases are no longer present in Canada, said Dubé.
However, she noted: “We used to say that polio is just one flight away from Canada.”
For someone who questioned vaccines, the discussion online was toxic, said Hills.
“I had a stereotype that pro-vaxx people were impatient and rude because that’s how it was coming across, especially online,” she said.
But when someone had a different approach, she listened. A friend of a friend had heard that she needed information and offered to help.
“She was the first person who approached me like I was a reasonable person and a caring parent so she totally disarmed me by her approach,” Hills said.
“If she had been at all snarky with me or impatient or rolling her eyes, I would have walked away because nobody enjoys being disrespected.”
Her friend acknowledged that Hills wanted the best for her children, listened to her concerns and encouraged Hills to carefully evaluate the sources behind the anti-vaccine stories she was reading.
When she did, “it was like a house of cards coming down,” Hills said. She changed her mind and decided to vaccinate her kids and she wrote a blog post about her journey that quickly gained international media attention.
Her friend had the kind of non-judgmental approach that Hills suggests doctors take with their vaccine-hesitant patients.
“Consider how you approach and how you talk to people who aren’t vaccinating,” said Hills. “You’re either helping them move towards vaccination or you’re driving them further away by your tone.”
Dubé’s research says the same.
“I think we need to switch gears and be more open-minded and not generate resistance in the person by telling them they’re wrong.”
It’s about respect, Hills said.
“Anti-vaxxers aren’t idiots. They are reasonable people if you talk to them and approach them with some respect. Maybe instead of talking at them, start talking to them. Ask them some questions.”