The danger of ignoring vaccines-- and a solution

In 2000 the U.S. considered measles eradicated, but the picture has changed alarmingly since then. In 2014, 667 unvaccinated people contracted measles. Last year an outbreak that began in California’s Disneyland infected more than 100.

Many Americans have been refusing to protect themselves and their children with the measles vaccine. According to a recent study in the American Journal of Public Health, as much as 5.5 percent of children are unvaccinated in some U.S. communities, and the parents most likely to refuse vaccines tend to be affluent, well-educated and white. Their resistance can largely be traced to a 1998 article in a British medical journal that falsely linked childhood vaccines to autism. That study was debunked, but the damage had been done.

Now doctors must figure out how to persuade these parents to change their minds. Late last year they got some help from a team of psychologists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of California, Los Angeles, who were interested in what might sway anti-vaxxers’ opinions.

Measles can be devastating. A highly contagious and virulent disease, it can lead to convulsions, hearing loss, brain damage and even death. Vaccination efforts have been so successful up to now, however, that almost half of the nation’s pediatricians have never seen a real case. The question is how to make people understand that the threat is real.

Would correcting misconceptions about the childhood vaccine-autism myth do the trick? Or would testimonials and graphic photos of sick children be more effective?

The study, led by Dr. Zachary Horne of the University of Illinois and published last August in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, asked 315 participants to complete questionnaires about their attitudes to vaccines and their plans to vaccinate their children. The subjects were chosen at random and not prescreened, although some dropped out or were later disqualified for not paying attention to the testing.

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