Thursday, April 26, 2007

What Motivates Vaccine Skeptics?

Over my five years as Director of the San Francisco Immunization Coalition I have met many people who were skeptical about immunization and vaccines. In general, I believe it is my job whether I am on the clock or not to give people the most factual, objective, up-to-date and science-based information about immunization to help keep them informed. I definitely think that vaccine skeptics take many forms and lumping them all together is not a useful way to understand them or inform them. Vaccine skeptics have different motivations and it is important to know who they are in order to talk them in the most honest and productive way. Here are a few but not all the types of people that are skeptical of vaccines (based on my own experience):

Emotional - Many people are not motivated entirely by rational thought but rather more motivated by emotion. Things like hope, fear, anger, trust, and joy motivate these types of people more than facts, statistics, or science. “Anti-vaccination” web sites usually do a good job at appealing to the emotions in order to get their point across. Understand for emotionally motivated people it is important to gain their trust in order to effectively get your point across. If they do not trust you on an emotional level they will not listen to what you say. And graphs of decreases in disease will not motivate them.

Political – when it comes to immunization, politics is a double-whammy. Why? Well because vaccines for the most part are made by large, corporate, pharmaceutical companies and advocated for and distributed in large part by the government. Unfortunately this plays strongly against the beliefs of two distinct groups of people with strong political motivations:

1. Libertarian/Anti-Government – whether you are aware or not there are many people in the U.S. that do no trust the government. Most libertarians dislike government more the further away it is. In other words they trust the Federal government the least and their local government the most, but they tend to believe limited or no government is the best. Sometimes it is hard to believe what motivates these people and other times it is not. But libertarians tend to look with skepticism on any program that is developed by the government and do not believe in collectivist arguments. The argument that one person should get immunized in order to protect others does not always play well with people that believe strongly in pure individualism.

2. Anti-Corporation/Anti-capitalist – you certainly have met someone who does not trust corporations or the private sector. In the Bay Area there are many people of this stripe. In general, pharmaceutical companies have become demonized and scapegoated for many of the health problems in the U.S. It is no wonder that people who believe that corporations are evil aren’t thrilled about putting something into their own or their children’s body made by a large, multinational corporation. However, most of these people, not all, will drive their children around in a car produced by a large multinational corporation in fact putting their trust in Volkswagen, Ford, Volvo, or Honda. Sometimes it is important to point out these distinctions in order to put beliefs more in context.

Conspiracy Theorist – the best way to understand conspiracy theorists is to read the definition of conspiracy theory. Examples: The government is knowingly poisoning our children. The United States is trying to sterilize African babies with the polio vaccine. The interesting thing about conspiracy theorists is that if they believe one conspiracy theory they tend to believe many conspiracy theories. Another interesting thing is that everyone and I mean everyone walking around today believes something that is absolutely false. The sensational and competitive nature of our media environment makes conspiracy theories a way to attract readers and viewers. And therefore they are prolific in our culture. A lot can be said of conspiracy theories but the most important is that almost all of them are not true. I always ask parents if they really want to base their children’s health on a conspiracy theory. Sometimes the truth isn't very interesting.

Fear of Needles – I do believe that there are large groups of people that have a deep-seated and profound fear of needles. Most vaccines are injected and I do believe this causes a lot of the fear of being immunized. It is certainly not pleasant to watch you child poked with several needles and therefore it is hard for some parents to be enthusiastic about immunization. Needles and injections are associated with drug addicts and aliens who come to colonize the Earth in those old movies. Most people do not associate needles with health. Therefore I wholeheartedly encourage the development of different ways to administer vaccines that are as effective.

How many people would be as opposed to immunization if they were administered through a bowl of ice cream?

When I think about all the reasons people could be fearful and skeptical of vaccination I am always amazed that almost 80% of children in the U.S. are properly immunized and that almost all countries capitalist (United States, Europe, Australia, Japan, etc.) or socialist (Venezuela, Cuba, etc.), democratic or autocratic have extensive immunization programs. And I always seem to reach the same conclusion based on this – immunizations must work.


Kathe Gustafson said...

I saw a promo that Fox News was planning to do a piece this week featuring a mother who blames vacciines for "harming her child" and is "taking on the drug companies" Does anyone know what the content was and if there was a pro-iz component?

John Reichel said...

To Andrew Resignato: I think that was a really excellent post. It's important to understand where people are coming from. I think your breakdown can help us understand how to target our message and also why we encounter such emotional resistance.

Matthew Killorin said...

To Andrew Resignato: You outlined great points regarding what drives vaccine skeptics. Liked the way you categorized them. However, I think public health itself deserves some blame too. Namely, the inability of public health experts and spokespeople from the CDC and other orgs to clearly, simply, and effectively explain exactly what our society would look like if everyone stopped immunizing their children. Public health needs a spokesperson who can use plain language to explain the threat of vaccine-preventable diseases- language that the average person can understand.