Study: Pro-Vaccine Messages May Backfire


Public health messages aimed at boosting childhood vaccination rates may be backfiring, a new report finds.

Current efforts that use scientific studies, vaccine facts and images and stories of disease-sickened kids actually increased fears about vaccine side effects among some parents. Even when they successfully refuted claims about a link between vaccines and autism, they made parents who were the most wary, less inclined to inoculate their children. That’s according to a study published recently in the journal Pediatrics, which raises questions about the effectiveness of well-funded public health vaccination campaigns.

Researchers Test Different Types of Pro-Vaccine Messages

Researchers looked at messages designed to reduce vaccine misperceptions and increase vaccination rates with the measles-mumps-rubella, or MMR, shots. They conducted two waves of email surveys of a nationally representative sample of nearly 1,760 U.S. parents of children younger than 18 in June and July 2011.

Parents were asked about their vaccine views first, and later exposed to one of four messages: information about the lack of evidence that the MMR vaccine causes autism; a vaccine pamphlet about the risks of getting the diseases; photos of children affected with the diseases; and a first-person narrative from a mom whose son got measles. A control group also received non-vaccine related information.

Overall, none of the messages increased parents’ intent to vaccinate future children, the study found. Those who supported vaccines still planned to get shots for their kids and those who didn’t weren’t persuaded to change.

The study also found that Information debunking discredited claims of a link between autism and the MMR vaccine successfully corrected parents’ views, but it didn’t change their intent to vaccinate. In fact, those with less favorable views of vaccines reported that their chances of vaccinating future kids fell from 70 percent to 45 percent.  At the same time, parents exposed to photos or stories of kids sickened by measles, mumps, or rubella became more worried about the side effects of the vaccine to prevent the diseases. That resulted in what researchers called the “danger-priming effect.”

Show Parents Not Likely to Change Opinion About Vaccination Because of Campaigns

The study, which used existing materials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, underscores the difficulty of communicating about vaccines.  Overall, the CDC spends between $8 million and $12 million each year on a wide range of vaccination messages focused on topics from childhood inoculations to flu shots for the elderly. Overall, the research suggests that parents are less likely to alter their opinion on vaccinations due to government campaigns.  Instead, parents who are questioning vaccination may be more persuaded by their own doctors, family, or friends.

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