Dr. Tuteur, the author the Skeptical OB blog, posted an article on why antibiotics are more acceptable than vaccines. If you want to read the full post click here. Dr. Tuteur suggests the reason why antibiotics are more acceptable than vaccines are the fact that antibiotics are simple and work quickly. A vaccine on the other hand has a more complex mechanism of action and you don’t see it working. We can’t stop using a vaccine until the World Health Organization declares a disease fully eradicated. We’ve only done that once with smallpox. I sincerely hope we can do it with some of the other disease we face. Vaccines are a victim of their own success. You don’t see the diseases anymore that the vaccine prevents. To those that oppose vaccines, the idea is we don’t need them anymore. The risk of the vaccine is in their eyes higher than getting the disease it prevents.
If you look at the overuse of antibiotics we have the opposite problem. Because they work really well and we can see them work, people ask for them to cure everything. They do a great job killing bacteria, but they don’t kill viruses. Healthcare professionals and public health have been saying this over and over again, but people still want their antibiotics. If you want to read about the consequences of this, Maryn McKenna does a great job outline them over at Germination.
So how do we get people to be more accepting of vaccines? First thing is stay out of the science. I’m not suggesting to lie or sugar coat the truth. The science of vaccines alienates people. When you go into the percentages of protection and how they work, the feeling is your talking above them. This means simplifying the message to ensure the public gets the bottom line of what they need to understand about the topic. Dr. Sandman has a great article on how to do this. The other problem is our sense of independence. I think part of this is American culture. We are independent and don’t like being told what to do. You protect yourself and I’ll protect myself. Vaccines work if everyone in the community that can get the vaccine takes it. This provides herd immunity to those who cannot take it. But this goes against our culture of fending for ourselves.
There have been some teachable moments recently such as the Disneyland measles outbreak. Many parents vaccinated their kids after that incident. Seeing the disease affecting ones children is a pretty powerful message. However, there are still a fair amount of people who refuse to vaccinate. Dr. Sandman mentions empathy as a way to reduce the outrage against vaccines. Unfortunately I cannot link to the article anymore where he talks about this. The gist of the argument is empathize and acknowledge the fears about vaccines. Without this there’s no way to convince someone to come to your side. No empathy means discounting the fears of the person, which may prompt them to dig in their heels. I think it’s harder to disagree with someone when they are empathizing with you. Is the end goal to change the minds of those who refuse to vaccinate or is it to further alienate them? Arguing the facts gets nothing. Empathy may change a mind.