How to Combat Antivaxxers and Misinformation Assertively​ – What is the Best Way to Proceed?

August 31, 2020

by Andrea Lloyd

Science is often seen as the end-all of arguments. “Scientists say that…”

However, that isn’t always true. It’s important to dig a little deeper into our science stories — learn about who sponsored it, what was it researching, and such — rather than focusing on the catchy Facebook headline. By working to understand each other rather than argue with each other, we can handle the misinformation that is thrown at us. Instead of trying to combat antivaxxers with our condescending attitudes, arrogant “face slap” comments on social media, or insults (as there are plenty of those), we should all first learn how vaccines work in the first place.

Next, we should all take pause and stock to consider the fact that even if we have known about AIDS and Ebola for decades now, we are still helpless in the face of the infected peoples’ tragic fates. HIV vaccines are now in clinical trials, together with Ebola treatments currently in testing, but the jury is still out. Simply put, vaccines could save billions of lives. But with what costs, the antivaxxers might ask. Well, let’s see today how to open and maintain an assertive and proactive conversation about vaccines. It is one thing to combat antivaxxers with data, facts, and up-to-date results, and yet another to dismiss them as humans entirely.

The Premise

The world we live in is drowned in a torrent of sights and sounds, amplified by the ever-increasing technology in our lives. As a result, we hear news constantly. It can be hard to tell what is real news and what is fake news. Journalism rooms, and in conjunction with fact-checkers and newsroom experts, have shrunk over the years with the growth of the internet and an individual news organization’s reach. Any person can read The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and the Houston Chronicle all in one day. As a result, journalism is a shrinking field, leaving what once were highly anticipated science (and other) columns to become reprinted stories from larger organizations.

As a result, misinformation can infect our social media feeds quickly and voraciously, leaving us with the symptoms and aftermath to alleviate or amputate. It can be hard to cure the misinformation after the infection takes hold. Take the antivax movement, for example.

How it All Began

Wakefields’s Study

In the late 1990s, Dr. Andrew Wakefield published a study of 12 children’s connections to the MMR vaccine causing autism. Despite this study being retracted and Wakefield discredited, a resurgence of the “anti-vaccine movement” began, characterized by sowing doubt about the effectiveness and safety of vaccines. Wakefield had taken bribe money from a law firm to fabricate a connection between autism and MMR vaccinations. This fraudulent report opened a door to a torrent of misinformation about vaccines and the autistic spectrum. In other words, one way to combat antivaxxers is to offer proof that the original study has no statistical foundation (the number of case studies is infinitesimal to warrant an extrapolation) and that the whole thing was a hoax.

Despite the unethical paper created by Wakefield, people continue to not vaccinate their children and themselves. According to the Center for Disease Control, the rate of unvaccinated toddlers continues to increase. In fact, the Word Health Organization refers it among the top ten threats to global health. Part of this is because autism isn’t the only fear of antivaxxers, or vaccine-hesitant people, as health organizations prefer to calls them. Common themes of those who avoid vaccines include the metals in a vaccine, “vaccine overload,” and vaccine side effects. Let’s break down the facts.

What Parents Fear the Most – Explained

Autism and Vaccines

There is no link between autism and vaccines, nor is there a risk of vaccines increasing autism. There have been a number of studies to debunk this controversy and the evidence confirms the connection simply does not exist.

Metals in a Vaccine

It is true that metals, formaldehyde, and antibodies are found in vaccines. While it sounds scary, these things already found in our everyday life. A vaccine may have 4.4mg of aluminum per dose, yet that element is the third most abundant on our planet and our bodies are very good at filtering it out. The amount found in infant baby formula over the course of six months is 38 mg and 7 mg in breast milk, which is still a safe amount for the infant.

Vaccine Overload

Some vaccines can be administered at the same time, allowing for fewer doctor visits for the family and increasing a child’s protection against viruses earlier in their lifetime. Medical doctors have determined a vaccination schedule that allows a child the most protection without overloading or overwhelming the body.

Vaccine Side Effects

Some people believe that the potential side effects of vaccines are worse than the diseases they prevent and just opt not to take the risk. In the majority of causes, the most you’ll get from a vaccine is a little soreness at the injection site and a slight fever.

Addressing Vaccine Hesitancy

While it was easy enough to work through the most common reasons for hesitancy, what it comes down to is the fact that parents want to protect their children. Images of smallpox and polio are found in textbooks, not our photo albums, and as a result, our society has forgotten how dangerous these diseases can be.

Children affected by polio

Image Source

Some people cite health freedom as a reason to not vaccinate, and while their concern may be legitimate, it doesn’t circumference why we use vaccines in the first place. The first reason we use vaccines is to protect our bodies from dangerous viruses and infections—that’s the reason everyone thinks of. The second reason is herd immunity.

Herd immunity refers to the resistance to the spread of a disease within a population. This immunity is only possible through vaccines. In order to protect a population from a disease, the recommended vaccinated number of individuals is 90-95%, especially for highly contagious diseases. That remaining 5-10% of people who are not vaccinated is not reserved for anti-vaxxers.

If the recent pandemic taught us something, it taught us that allowing people to get sick just to achieve herd immunity does not always work as good in reality as it does on paper. For this reason, the world is still searching for an Ebola vaccine, as it still kills people no matter how many or how often a population got in contact with the virus. For this reason, while herd immunity is a matter of science, we can only achieve it by getting vaccines, not by getting sick and putting our lives in danger.

It’s for those who are unable to have a vaccine. This can refer to a number of people including cancer patients, newborn babies, those with life-threatening allergies, elderly, and those with autoimmune deficiency disorders. This 5-10% is a marginal amount of the population who would be unable to fight off dangerous diseases if caught. If you want some solid data to combat antivaxxers, let’s take a closer look at how the measles spread in order to break this down.

The Clark County Example

Clark County, Washington, began the Fall 2018 school year like any other except for one thing: kids weren’t being vaccinated. Across the county, only 87.6% of schoolchildren across all grade levels met the immunization requirements. At the turn of the new year, the outbreak began. As of March 2019, the county has had 71 confirmed measles cases.

The measles is a highly contagious airborne disease. Nine out of ten unprotected people will contract the disease from an infected person. The seriousness increases because symptoms begin with a runny nose, red eyes, and a fever: what appears to be the common cold which most people don’t take seriously and will continue about their normal day.

After four days, a rash appears. Depending on your age and current state of health, you could suffer serious complications like pneumonia, where your lungs fill with fluid, and encephalitis, where your brain swells. Hospitalization may be required.  In worst case scenarios, a person may die from the measles, even if treated.

But the first three days you’ve had the measles, you’ve been in contact with a number of different people, who have been in contact with even more people. And like a chain effect, they’ve waited three days thinking it was a cold or the flu. It spreads and it becomes too late. If the vaccination rate is high, the measles disease will quickly reach a protected individual, preventing it from spreading further. If it is below the threshold, you may have to temporarily shut down the school like Clark County in order to prevent the epidemic from further spreading.

This low vaccination rate didn’t go unnoticed. At the beginning of the school year, Clark County health officer Dr. Alan Melnick warned that a really horrible situation could develop. However, upon seeing the effects of the medieval disease, vaccination rates jumped 500% in the Washington state county.

When Trying to Combat Antivaxxers, Remember You’re Talking to Parents Who Want What’s Best for Their Children

While I could dive into the heuristics and persuasion biases of communication theory, let’s focus on this takeaway instead: this case study shows the best way to help parents and anti-vaxxers understand the importance of vaccines is to help them understand the inherent dangers of the diseases they treat. But we can’t pin it all on antivaxxers. It is the pro-vaxxers’ and scientists’ job to really listen to anti-vax concerns, engage in friendly conversation and understand why they are worried about vaccines.

What it comes down to is parents want the best for their children. That’s all it is. And while scientists and pro-vaxxers can explain away that “Science says vaccines are safe” and “Herd immunity is important for society,” all that a parent wants is for their kids to be safe. It won’t be the numbers like “95% of society needs to be vaccinated to keep everyone safe”; it’ll be powerful anecdotes like the Dallas lawyer and polio survivor who is still using an iron lung at age 72 when he contracted this now-preventable disease during childhood.

It’s true that there is typically some mild reactions from vaccines, like a slight fever and redness, and it’s true that there is some low risk of adverse events—anaphylaxis happens in less than one million cases and is reversible by a healthcare professional. These are among the legitimate concerns of parents that we as a society should be listening to help them understand why vaccines are important and how the vaccine will affect their child. Conversations that increase vaccine confidence are extremely important.

While we can talk in the news and over social media about vaccines by sharing anecdotes and statistics, the absolute best way to combat vaccine fake news and misinformation are to talk about it to a medical professional you trust, like your family doctor. They want what is best for your kids just like you. And while it can be tricky to discuss medical topics online, talking with someone you know and you are comfortable with is the best course of action.

How do you combat misinformation? What do you feel like are the best ways to talk about vaccination?

How to Combat Antivaxxers: Conclusion

With a tumultuous amount of information on the internet, it can be hard and confusing to navigate the world of vaccines. The best way to do that? Leave behind Facebook and talk to your doctor. It is not easy to combat antivaxxers, especially in a world filled with conspiracy theories and political agendas. However, the best way to stay on top of things is to understand how science works, learn from experts, and help others make sense of the world as well.

How do you combat antivaxxers? Are you ready to have the vaccine conversation with those who do not want to believe or hesitate in taking science seriously? Are you assertive in your approach? Do you rely on science or on personal experience when you discuss it with them? What are the proactive steps you take to keep the vaccination conversation going in a decent, meaningful, and mindful manner, especially now, when the world is going through an unprecedented health crisis?

About Andrea

I’m a science communicator who specializes in public relations. 

Without advocating for science, no one would know about the amazing discoveries scientists, engineers, and researchers make. Communicating science is just as important as doing science. 


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