Why it’s so hard to convince anti-vaxxers to vaccinate their kids

Despite medical evidence in favour of vaccinations the Ontario Medical Association says more parents doubt the science because of misinformation online. Now they’re beginning a campaign to correct common myths about vaccines. 7:09 

Despite all the medical evidence in favour of vaccinations, the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) says more and more parents are filled with doubt and are asking questions because of misinformation online.

Now the OMA is beginning a campaign to correct common myths about vaccines. It aims to present the public with clear facts about vaccination on platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

Kelly Pedro has studied vaccine hesitancy online. She is an instructor in Wilfrid Laurier University’s digital media and journalism program. She spoke with the CBC’s Conrad Collaco. You can read an abridged and edited version of the interview or listen to the full audio interview by hitting the play button above. 

Kelly Pedro, journalism instructor 

(Shanachie Communications)

From what you’ve seen of this campaign, is it likely to change minds?

It’s really focused on what we would call evidence-based communication. That’s just sharing facts about vaccines and it doesn’t always move the needle for parents who are vaccine hesitant because it assumes that group isn’t informed or just doesn’t have the facts.

We know that vaccine-hesitant parents feel that they are informed. Some of them feel they are more informed than the general public and they have independently educated themselves. That type of strategy doesn’t always change people’s opinions. It’s not just enough to say that vaccines are safe and assume people will accept those facts. 

How do you reach the parent who feels well-informed but is rejecting the conclusions from medical experts on vaccinations? 

You’re not just asking them to make a health decision, you’re asking them to change their identity.– Kelly Pedro, Wilfrid Laurier University

My research looked at what is happening when [anti-vax] parents start sharing stories with each other. In those environments they are creating a community, an identity that validates fears and worries about vaccines.

There was an identity-based campaign that really spoke to people to people’s identities and values based on how they felt about their life. There were posters of parents wearing their children in woven wrappers that said ‘I use cloth diapers. I eat organic food. And I immunize my children. I had a home birth. I breastfeed my children.’

The message there was that vaccinations don’t have to be opposed to who you are. When parents are communicating they are building an identity. What you are doing when you are asking parents to change their minds on their stance on vaccines, you’re not just asking them to make a health decision, you’re asking them to change their identity. 

In the absence of that we need some stories that will help people understand the importance of vaccines and help people understand that most people do vaccinate. We need stories that talk about vaccines in a positive way. We need vaccine champions.    

In the Australian campaign what was the message from the vaccine champions?

Most people don’t put their hand up and say ‘I immunized my children and they’re safe and they’re perfectly healthy. We didn’t have any adverse reactions.’ So, the stories that we are left with in the absence is are stories that exist online of the rare complications or the story of parents who connect a health condition of their child to vaccines. We don’t tend to fill that space with the positive stories.  

Did this campaign work? 

Researchers surveyed people in this community about their opinions after the campaign and it really did help shift the needle in people’s thoughts. People felt more positively about vaccines after that campaign. There’s not going to be one thing that works. There’s probably going to be a mix of things that come together to change people’s minds. That includes more vaccine champions. More sharing of stories of parents talking about vaccines in a positive way.   

Can we stop the spread of misinformation online?

Some of that is already happening. Facebook announced last month they would crack down on misinformation on vaccines. Pages that communicate misinformation about vaccines wouldn’t be as easy to find. I don’t know how you completely stop it. There is some movement by some social media organizations to crack down on the ability of people to find that misinformation online on certain platforms. 

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