A new study has shown that it is possible for members of our community who reject vaccines to change their minds by being confronted with the cost of their reluctance.
Many people around the world have never seen iron lungs, smallpox, or measles blindness. For some it is more difficult to weigh the risks and benefits of vaccination if they do not see these physical memories.
Researchers at Brigham Young University in the US surveyed nearly 600 students with diverse vaccine positions and found that meeting a first-hand experience with a vaccine-preventable disease provides an opportunity for rethinking.
It is wild that measles is experiencing a booming comeback after the US Centers for Disease Control and Control (CDC) set an optimistic target for their elimination within the country's borders in the early 1980s.
Even more difficult to believe that the goal of the CDC was actually reached in 2000, when experts explained that the disease is no longer endemic, which means that new cases would come mainly from abroad.
Polio's story is similar. In the 1950s, thousands of people risked becoming paralyzed by the disease. Thanks to the vaccine, this is also a disease that few of us will ever encounter in their lives.
While global polio eradication efforts have resulted in relatively low outbreaks, this is not true for other vaccine-preventable infections, such as measles and whooping cough.
While most people used to care about vaccination plans, more and more people today are wondering if the risks are really worth it.
"Vaccines are victims of their own success," says microbiologist Brian Poole.
"They are so effective that most people have no experience with vaccine-preventable diseases, and we need to reassure people of the dangers of these diseases."
It's a nice idea. There are good reasons to believe that an emotional reminder of a threat will drive up the cost of delaying the vaccine far more than the cold number of graphs and tables.
But the human brain can be difficult to share in teams, and our decisions about whether to vaccinate or not can be diverse and complex, and are influenced by both cultural and personal forces.
To test the extent to which an emotional memory of "outmoded" diseases could work, the researchers asked 56 college students for help, who admitted to being somewhat skeptical about vaccines in a survey.
Finding students with such a perspective was not likely to be a major challenge, as they came mostly from a part of Utah where vaccine coverage was among the lowest in the country.
Another 369 students who had confidence in the benefits of vaccines also attended the courses. Both groups included a number of volunteers attending a course on vaccination content.
The combined sample was randomized into one of two groups. One half would interview a person diagnosed with autoimmune disease; the other spoke to a person who had experience with a disease that could have been prevented by a modern vaccination program.
Both groups asked the same nine questions and sought details about the nature of their illness, their impact on their lives, their family and their finances.
The answers were very positive for some of the students.
"The pain was so bad that she ended up in a pain clinic where she made steroid shots in her spine," a student who interviewed a woman with a shingles syndrome reported a persistent effect of chickenpox.
"The painkillers did not even touch her pain, not even the heavy ones, she could not leave the house for months."
In a follow-up survey, the volunteers' attitude to vaccines was reassessed and their experiences with the interview topic were addressed.
Of the 19 people who did not study vaccinations as part of their college curriculum and who also interviewed someone who had a vaccine-preventable disease, 13 have changed their minds to vaccinations.
Studies containing information about vaccines also seemed to be helpful. All five reluctant students attending a vaccine-related course changed their minds.
The numbers themselves are not exactly earth-shaking and it is important to note that the study was limited to a rather limited and potentially "WEIRD" -demographic group.
With the growing pool of research claiming that human stories are at the center of health education, this study demonstrates the role that personal storytelling can play in controlling the spread of disease.
"If your goal is to influence people's decisions about vaccines, this process works much better than trying to get information against vaccines," says Poole.
Let's hope that one day it will be impossible to find someone who can tell such a story.
This research was published in vaccines,
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