Fight the Anti-Vaccine Rhetoric with Science


In the interest of promoting more robust discourse around the importance of regular vaccinations for serious but preventable contagious conditions, MHA@GW is hosting a guest post series in honor of National Immunization Awareness Month (NIAM). Throughout the month of August, we’re featuring pieces from thought leaders and advocates in the field who were asked to write about the importance of immunization in 2015. Read more about the project in our introduction post.

By Jennifer Raff, Violent Metaphors

In all likelihood, parents have already made up their mind as to whether or not they’ll vaccinate themselves and their children. And in all likelihood, that decision was to vaccinate.

These parents are motivated by a shared concern for their children and community. They know that vaccines prevent many childhood diseases, and that by maintaining high vaccination rates in their community, they maintain herd immunity. Perhaps they’ve seen the comparison of morbidity rates in the pre- and post-vaccine era and understand the significant impact vaccines have made in preventing the worst childhood diseases. They may have been worried about the outbreak of measles among families who took their children to Disneyland earlier this year, which hit unvaccinated people the hardest. Regardless of how they came to this decision, the vast majority of parents understand that the risks of vaccines are low relative to their tremendous benefits.

This is good news for the health of our communities. It’s critical that we continue to talk about immunization, because vaccine opponents are relentless — see the comments on my piece here for many examples of the bad science and provocative rhetoric they employ.

Speaking up is the most important step, letting parents know that their decision to vaccinate is the safest and most common way people protect their children. The anti-vaccine minority is disproportionately loud, partly because vaccines are so safe, effective and ubiquitous that they become part of the background landscape of parenting. Fortunately, in reaction to harmful pseudoscientific scaremongering and events like the Disneyland outbreak, people are motivated to speak out in favor of vaccines.

It matters how we talk about vaccines, too. That’s where the most room for improvement lies in 2015. Writers want the discussion to be dramatic and too often try to paint “anti-vaxxers” as demonic or vile. Or they try to use the vaccine debate as a weapon in the larger culture wars. This leads to the media (and many well-meaning science writers) giving too much weight to vaccine opponents, creating the false perception that there is a “growing movement.” Another problem is that the default images associated with stories on vaccinations are often distressed children and menacing needles. These approaches can have the unfortunate effect of recruiting more people to the anti-vaccine community, as Dan Kahan has pointed out in his piece in Science magazine and on his blog.

We therefore need to carefully consider our approaches in discussing the importance of immunization and ask ourselves certain questions: Is this likely to increase or decrease immunization rates? What do parents who are undecided on this issue need in order to make an informed choice? What do vaccine-hesitant parents need to hear to assuage their fears?

The approach that I take on my blog is to confront the bad science being spread about vaccines directly and to provide resources to parents wishing to educate themselves and their community. These resources include a guide to reading and understanding scientific papers and a guide for those critical “playground conversations” between parents who vaccinate and vaccine hesitant parents.

The goal is not only to improve science literacy in a general way, but also to get out the message that parents who vaccinate are in the majority and that their decision is supported by their community as well as other parents from all sides of the political and social spectrum.

Jennifer Raff is an assistant professor at the University of Kansas, with a joint Ph.D. in genetics and anthropology. She has published numerous scientific articles on population genetics, ancient DNA and Native American prehistory. She conducts ongoing research in anthropological genetics, particularly the peopling of the Americas, and Midwestern and Arctic prehistory. Raff has a keen interest in improving public science literacy and writes about pseudoscience and other controversial topics on her blog Violent Metaphors, where she hosts lively, science-friendly discussions. She is an avid martial artist and former Golden Gloves boxer, currently focusing on Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and MMA. Jennifer tweets about science, absurdity and combat sports at @jenniferraff.