Mitigating the Effect of Anti-Vaxxers on Global Health


SEATTLE, Washington — The effect of anti-vaxxers on global health is gaining increased notoriety. The anti-vaccination movement has even made it onto the World Health Organization’s top ten list of threats to global health for 2019. The World Health Organization (WHO) calls this phenomenon “vaccine hesitancy—a reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines.” This article will discuss the top five ways to mitigate the effect of anti-vaxxers on global health.

The Internet and Information

Internet access has been a mostly positive public health development, empowering people to make informed decisions about their care. However, the widespread communication afforded by modern technology has also had the unintended consequence of spreading false information, which has fuelled the anti-vaccine movement.

A study of Canadian internet users on a variety of social media sites showed that 60 percent of people had some degree of reluctance towards vaccinations when they were presented with the subject of the influenza vaccine. A Google search using the keywords “vaccine” and “immunization” produced 43 anti-vaccine results out of 100. The first ten that were found in the search were anti-vaccine websites.

The Lie That Started the Anti-Vaccine Movement

Andrew Wakefield, arguably the father of the modern anti-vaccine movement, was a British doctor whose defining work was centered on the now-debunked link between vaccines for mumps, measles and rubella (MMR vaccines) and autism. Others later revealed that he had employed flawed and unethical research methods when conducting his studies, which were originally published in the Lancet in 1998.

The medical community discredited his findings and barred him from practicing medicine again. The Lancet initially published a short retraction, but later released a lengthier and more forceful one in 2010, following several outbreaks of the measles in Western Europe and North America. It has taken 20 years and a great deal of money for dedicated scientists to begin undoing the harm of Wakefield’s fraudulent studies.

Top Five Ways to Mitigate the Effect of Anti-Vaxxers on Global Health

  1. Avoid Labels: Joshua Greenberg, a researcher in the field of vaccine hesitancy, spoke with Vanessa Milne, Timothy Caulfield and Joshua Tepper from the website about the most effective ways to communicate with people who were either undecided or against vaccination. His advice was to refrain from labeling people. “The anti-vaxxer is a specter,” Greenberg told Milne, Caulfield and Tepper. In reality, true “anti-vaxxers” only make up 1 to 3 percent of the population in Canada where Greenberg conducted his research. Thirty percent were merely vaccine-hesitant and, therefore, open to hearing alternative viewpoints on the subject. 
  2. Don’t Waste Time Trying to Undo Confirmation Bias: Milne, Caulfield and Tepper also interviewed German psychologist and vaccine-hesitancy researcher Cornelia Betsch. Betsch believes that confirmation biases are hard to shake, so it is not worth trying. Instead, highlight the impact of the diseases themselves. Photographs of unvaccinated children suffering from these diseases are far more impactful than dry arguments about the efficacy of vaccination. WHO reminds its health workers that making the effort to “understand a patient’s concerns, fears, and beliefs about vaccinations [will help]determine which, if any, arguments might be most effective in persuading these patients to accept vaccination.” 
  3. Explain Herd Immunity: Vaccine-hesitant parents often lose sight of how potentially terrible certain illnesses are because vaccination works so well. They offer themselves or their children as examples of healthy specimens in spite of being unvaccinated, which explains the mechanics of herd immunity from which many vaccine-hesitant parents are already benefiting. 
  4. Let Science Work for You Instead of Against You: The vaccine-hesitant may tune out scientific evidence that does not corroborate their existing biases. As Betsch notes, many vaccine-hesitant parents are looking for irrefutable reassurance that vaccines are safe for their children. When health professionals hedge their advice with qualifiers like “as of right now” vaccines are considered safe, it is reason enough for many already hesitant parents to discount the advice altogether. Shift the message to underscore the fact that 90 percent of medical scientists agree that authorities should require all parents to vaccinate their children. Additionally, point out distortions in scientific “facts” presented by anti-vaccine literature, which often cherry-pick results that seem to prove their theories while omitting key pieces of information that provide necessary context. 
  5. Make It Mandatory: After an alarming spike in measles cases, Italy took a less nuanced approach. Italy had 4,991 cases of measles in 2017, six times the number that had been reported the previous year. In response, the Italian government made MMR vaccines, as well as vaccinations against nine other diseases, mandatory. Some parents were comfortable with the mandate while others protested what they saw as an infringement on their personal freedom. Microbiology and virology professor Roberto Burioni, at Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, spoke with Christopher Livesay of NPR about the reasoning behind the controversial law. He believes that the law is necessary because the danger of an outbreak is still too high. It is not until “the vaccination rate is around 95 percent [that]the virus is not able to circulate in the population.” The law should remain in effect at least until that rate is accomplished.

The effect of anti-vaxxers on global health is serious enough for some world leaders to impose unpopular laws. Unlike other personal health choices, opting out of vaccination does not affect just one individual; it puts entire communities at risk. Organizations such as WHO and UNICEF continue to make life-saving vaccines available in developing countries while educating people worldwide on the importance of vaccinating.

– Raquel Ramos
Photo: Flickr


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