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How to Talk to Anti-Vaxxers

vaccine needle
Research assistant Rachel Alter became a “pro-vaccine troll” so you don’t have to. Photo: Pixabay

When Rachel Alter started off as a graduate student, she expected to investigate epidemics, bioterrorism and disease eradication. But her focus started to shift after she began chatting with anti-vaxxers—people opposed to vaccination—on Facebook. Now, as a research assistant at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia’s Earth Institute, she wants to find ways to better communicate about vaccine safety.

In recent op-eds, Alter has called for a national movement to dispel the myths that feed into anti-vaccination fears. Despite an abundance of evidence showing that vaccines are perfectly safe and save lives, many people reject them, stoked by the frightening misinformation that spreads over social networks.

Vaccine refusal is having a real-world impact. Two decades ago, measles was all but eradicated from the U.S. Now, cases are skyrocketing, with more than 1,700 infections since 2010. Alter notes that in the first six months of 2018, more than 41,000 Europeans contracted measles and 37 died.

In her op-eds, Alter has argued that it’s time for a movement to battle the spread of false information about vaccines. She’s calling on organizations—such as FEMA, the Red Cross, and the American Academy of Pediatrics—as well as faith leaders and survivors to get involved in the conversation on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. She also suggests that celebrities could play an important role in setting a good example, and that schools could help students learn how to distinguish between credible and non-credible information.

What you can do

One of the most important things you can do to combat the resurgence of obsolete diseases is simply to get vaccinated. Not only does this help prevent you yourself from getting sick, but also makes it harder for the disease to find its way into your community, thanks to herd immunity. And when you get vaccinated, tell your friends. They’ll be more likely to get vaccinated, too.

You could also try talking to the people in your life who refuse vaccines. From her experience as a “pro-vax troll”—she’s been booted from several groups simply for sharing real science—Alter has learned a few lessons about navigating this sometimes tricky terrain.

She says that she sees three types of people in the anti-vax community. She rarely engages with the strongest vaccine opponents, nor the profiteers—people who make money from selling anti-vaccine hype—because those discussions are rarely fruitful. When she does, her goal is not to convince them to change their minds, but to have a public conversation with them so that people on the fence about vaccines can read along and come to their own conclusions. It’s those people on the fence, the less vocal majority in the Facebook groups she’s joined, that Alter hopes to convince.

“They’re people who just get so much information that they don’t know what to believe and they don’t know how to pick apart the real data from the fake data,” she explains. “They’re the ones who you can have fruitful conversations with.”

Here are a few of her strategies for engagement:

1. Be respectful. Nobody likes to be called an idiot or be told that they’re bad parents. “We have to come from a place of empathy,” says Alter. “The vast majority of [anti-vaxxers] are really just trying to do what’s best for their families and their kids, and they don’t have the science literacy to weed through all the information.”

2. Don’t bombard them with facts. Facts and statistics can be helpful, but too much at once can be overwhelming and exhausting. “Be mindful,” Alter advises. “Note how that conversation is going” and adjust accordingly. If it looks like someone else is handling it well enough without your input, sit back for a bit; you can always join in later.

3. Ask questions. Questions like “What is your concern about…” and “How do you perceive…” can get the conversation going in a way that doesn’t feel like an attack. They encourage the other person to examine their beliefs more closely, and can also help you to…

4. Find out where they’re coming from. Learning what’s important to your conversation partner can help you find common ground and suggest ideas that fit with their worldview. A variety of studies have found that vaccine opponents are pretty evenly split between liberals and conservatives, and they have a range of different reasons for rejecting vaccines. For many conservatives, for example, it’s a matter of having the freedom to make their own choices. So, Alter says, explaining that vaccination helps protect others in the community might resonate well with liberals, but fall flat with someone who places a higher value on personal liberty.

The World Health Organization has more helpful tips on how to respond to vaccine deniers. You can use a lot of this advice in other contentious areas as well, such as arguments over climate change.

The tip of the iceberg

Alter says that although it’s impossible for her to know whether her conversations have led to people getting vaccinated, sometimes people thank her for answering their questions. “I like to think that I’m actually affecting them, but I’ll never be able to prove it,” she says.

The conversations have helped her develop some new lines of research. She’s currently seeking approval for a study that would ask vaccine opponents, “What would you need to see, learn, or understand better before you vaccinate yourself or your children?” The study’s goal would be to compile reasonable suggestions to recommend to doctors and other stakeholders. Some of these suggestions might take the form of offering allergy tests before vaccination, for example, or listing what each ingredient in the vaccine is used for.

And she couldn’t have picked a better time to get involved. The World Health Organization names “vaccine hesitancy” as one of the 10 public health threats to worry about in 2019. “It’s such a growing problem,” Alter says, “and it seems like it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

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Rich S
Rich S
5 years ago

There is a tax credit for children that was established during the Clinton administration. I have long felt that it should not be “no strings attached”. Why not require proof that the child of the taxpayer claiming the deduction is up to date with vaccinations?

If the parent making the decision decides not to vaccinate their child, they should lose the deduction. Many of the anti-vaxxers are likely not committed enough to their belief that they would give up the tax deduction.

Lee K.
Lee K.
5 years ago

This is a good post. I do have a question – what do we do with people whose entire objection to vaccines is based on a misguided belief that “chemicals” are bad? If the entirety of their argument is that vaccines contain a lot of scary-sounding compounds…. well, yes, that’s true. They do. Yet somehow no amount of the usual explanations (e.g. pointing out that the mercury compounds in vaccines are inert, that everything is made of chemicals, that they’ve been extensively tested for safety) seems to penetrate this barrier.

When the opposing argument boils down to “vaccines sound scary, and essential oils sound natural and safe and harmless”, how does one effectively refute this, without resorting to citing articles that will be dismissed as “paid for by Big Pharma”? I want to help fight the rising tide of anti-intellectualism, but it’s hard to do so when reputable sources are not considered reputable by the anti-vaxx crowd.

Matt
Matt
Reply to  Lee K.
4 years ago

Oftentimes, intellectualism itself is the problem. Everyone should reserve a healthy portion of their mind for skepticism. It can not be refuted that the trillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry is a two-headed monster. Although there are innovators in the space who are making true breakthrough discoveries, the industry as a whole should not be vaunted as inherently benevolent; especially when they are beholden to shareholders. These pharmaceutical companies wield incredible lobbying power, and it is naiive to assume they would never suppress data or clinical anecdotal evidence that suggest their products may cause unexpected damage or death to protect their share prices. Does no “pro-vaxxer” listen to drug commercials? Half or more of the commercials’ airtimes are devoted to a long list of potential horrible side effects. Those potential side effects are actually REAL side effects that affected REAL participants in the clinical trial. There is no way to study the potential damages caused by any drug with every existing DNA signature, or even with all the other laundry list of other drugs most Americans are taking. Call me crazy if you want, but I take the side of those who do not want to roll the dice to find out if they or their child will become another side effect statistic. The MMR and flu vaccine both list death as a potential side effect on the package inserts. I believe I would prefer measles or the flu to death, thanks. Many cultures, like the rural farmers of central China, have lived to old age in good health without ever seeing a prescriltion drug or vaccine. Funny thing is, with proper nutrition, a less toxic environment, sanitation/sewage containment, and adequate handwashing, our immune systems are capable of fighting off even the nastiest of illnesses. Unfortunately, the pharmaceutical companies can not profit from those things. Vaccines in particular are the steadiest, most renewable streams of income for these companies, so when that stream is threatened, it makes perfect sense that they would demonize their critics and incentivize businesses, institutions, and [ignorant] celebrities and politicians to push them even harder.

Christina
Christina
5 years ago

The single biggest thing I would ask to see – as a scientifically literate, educated person who knows vaccines work as designed and declines to administer them – is the removal of vaccine research and production from the commercial/capitalist domain. As a public health matter, vaccine R&D and implementation should be entirely managed by public health institutions that have no profit motive attached. Ethically, those institutions would research and evaluate and fund all sorts of systems that benefit public health without bias toward systems that enrich industrialists. I just finished City if Thorns – about the world’s largest refugee camp, in Kenya – they vaccinated 600,000 people against polio, but couldn’t be bothered to improve sanitation systems which would have protected against polio as well as cholera, dysentery, etc. Scientists can be very close-minded about the tainting of research by money.

Matt
Matt
Reply to  Christina
4 years ago

Exactly Christina, the right amount of lobbying money can buy any “scientific” study!

Donna Bass
Donna Bass
5 years ago

Perhaps seeing that anti vaxxers are really really well read. They have found much of the ammunition they need from the very body of work you are pulling from. These people are afraid of damage to their children. Not just autism…but neurological damage that is a real danger. There are real dangers with vaccines. I didn’t make that up, and you know that is true. I realize these dangers are thought to be very rare but…its really easy to make a case for them being more common than we think. Let’s talk about potential damages. Let’s talk about how to take care of children and adults that have been damaged rather than yelling at each other. Lets come clean and talk about the possible down sides rather than people reading about downsides that are not being talked about. People see that there are real possibilities for damage and also see that pro vax people are losing their minds and wonder what is being hidden. Lets all come to the table and talk about the cons, the pros and all of the risks together. There are reasonable points on both sides, and as a “troll” I am sure you already know this.

Billk
Billk
5 years ago

Lee,

I’m researching this and it is a very difficult area. Around half the population hears connotations of ‘bad things’ whenever they hear the word ‘chemical.’

A starting point is mercury. Thiomersal, the mercury containing preservative used in some vaccines is almost certainly absent from the vaccines they will mention. Here in Australia, there are only two vaccines that contain thiomersal: Yellow Fever and Japanese Encephalitis. None of the vaccines that are routinely administered to children contain it.

Dave
Dave
4 years ago

Former antivaxer here and now a vaccinated nurse. For me it was a foundational worldview. I was convinced through watching YouTube and reading antivaxer literature that the vaccine developers had nefarious intentions. They designed these vaccines with the intent to do harm and depopulate the world. Peel back the layers of the fears people have about vaccines, and you will invariably find a Conspiracy Theory foundation, whether states or not. Not that bring into Conspiracy Theory is something new, but folks are naturally suspicious, and the YouTube stuff is do very scary.

Suffice to say that once I began to study the history and theory behind vaccine development, a paradigm shift took place. It felt a bit like leaving a cult in that I was accused of joining with the enemy of all of mankind. So be it…

T K
T K
Reply to  Dave
4 years ago

I like this thought, but not necessarily true for all.. for me hate to say it because it is so controversial, but what opened my mind to even look at this line of thought was when both my boys have been diagnosed with autism, and then my niece as well, and we have never had any autism in our family ever… please know as parents of autistic kids, and hearing 1 in 100 (is this the correct figure?) kids are autistic, and to hear the CONSTANT clamor and attention given to squelch ANY anti-vaccine discussion at same time relatively little to any discussion/media attention/etc given to the autism epidemic is frustrating and unfortunately makes one pause and wonder why… skip the anti-vaccine rhetoric, determine the cause and a cure for the autism epidemic, and this whole discussion goes away…

Sandy
Sandy
Reply to  Dave
4 years ago

I have watched Bill Gates, one of the most pro vaxxer around, on 2 different occasions say that vaccines will help with the overpopulation of the earth.
You can’t unsee that.
Explanation please?

Nick Jenner
Nick Jenner
Reply to  Sandy
3 years ago

It is not something he says in secret. Explanation is readily available if you look. Reducing childhood mortality rate by, amongst other things, promoting/providing access to vaccinations, enables parents to seek to have fewer children vs. when childhood mortality rate is higher. More certainty of child survival = less hedging bets by having more kids. Less kids per person = less overpopulation. Overpopulation is considered a major factor driving climate change, war, poverty… basically anything that involves limited resources being spread thin. The western world has already benefited from theSe positive outcomes of vaccination, Bill Gates is helping to spread that to other nations yet to experience them.

Joey
Joey
4 years ago

I think it’s the half-truths out there that confuses well-meaning people. In this misinformation era, schools need to do a better job teaching people how to figure out whether they’re being mislead or not.

Iggy Semmelweis
Iggy Semmelweis
4 years ago

The author would like to know “What would you need to see, learn, or understand better before you vaccinate yourself or your children?” I have a list, but will supply just a few items.
1, A study of the vaccine safety datalink that shows the health outcomes of completely vaccinated vs. completely unvaccinated individuals. The data is there.
2. A toxicology study showing the safe levels of injected aluminum adjuvants. It’s never been done, but vaccines contain this undisputed neurotoxin.
3. A better vaccine adverse event reporting system. According to the CDC’s own study, VAERS only reports less than 1% of adverse events.

There are more, but this would be a start. Maybe the author can question why such common sense science hasn’t been done?

Marilyn
Marilyn
4 years ago

The most ridiculous thing is that even the United States Dept of Health and Human Services doesn’t have studied on safety and efficacy and they could t get them because the vaccine manufacturers don’t have them, either. What a lark! I’ve yet to see any studies proving safety and efficacy and the vaccine inserts even state they haven’t been tested for carcinogenic or mutagenic properties or outcomes. I’d attach the legal documents verifying that US Dept of HHS doesn’t have them and the vaccine inserts but I’m unable to do so here.

Claire
Claire
4 years ago

I find it interesting that people are so quick to blame vaccine hesitancy when the vaccines no longer work against mutations in genotypes. Take measles for example. The H1 genotype evades recognition by vaccine induced antibodies. Here is an article from 10 years ago. Also the people with solid, lifelong immunity are aging and dying so we now have vaccine immunity which is subpar. Why blame the hesitant and use them as a scapegoat for a failing pharmaceutical product which hasn’t been adequately safety tested? You sound like a person hired by a Vaccine PR firm and your articles are biased and discriminate against those who rightfully question vaccine dogma.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/19625457/

Teresa
Teresa
Reply to  Claire
4 years ago

I don’t think this article says what you think it says. It’s just making the case for continued surveillance. It says the opposite of what you claim: “This concurs with the epidemiological observation that the live-attenuated vaccine protects against both H1 variants. ”

If wild measles endemic to Asia is mutating, then it stands to reason that vaccination is even more important, because if we want to cease mutation, we need to cease its proliferation.

The claim you are trying to make would also bolster the idea that herd immunity is even more important, because by giving a foothold to the virus and aiding its mutation, your choice not to vaccinate would actually, as you claim, make our vaccines less effective. So it’s not just a personal choice but a matter of public health.

Sandy
Sandy
4 years ago

I would love to be bombarded with scientific facts. I would love to see a study on vaccinated vs unvaccinated children. I would love for someone to tell me that the very real side effects listed on each and every vaccine insert is utter bull. I would like for others to read the book ‘The Whistleblower’ where an actual author of the 2004 MMR vaccine safety study admits to corrupting the data.
Please hit me with the science.

Anita
Anita
3 years ago

Where are these studies that show that vaccines are safe? I’d like to do some research. Thank you!

James
James
2 years ago

Where are all the Anti-Vax Discussions I can join? This isn’t about anyone’s Freedom or Rights this is about the War Humans have with Viruses. They have to stop all this nonsense, you either want to stop the spread of the virus that is now killing babies, etc… or you don’t, and are fine with that. This is not the first Virus or Vaccine out there. mRNA vaccines have been around for decades. All this is ridiculous, get F’N vaccinated so the Human Race survives, this has nothing to do about freedom and rights. Viruses were around a lot longer than the Bill of Rights.

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