Treating Anti-Vaxxers Like They're Idiots Won't Get Us Anywhere

vaccineWith the recent measles outbreak, we’ve seen a new level of condemnation and shaming of a particular group in our society: Those who choose not to vaccinate. The vitriol aimed at these families online from select doctors, parents, and anyone with a keyboard has been, to say the least, rather distressing to witness.


For those who vaccinate -- and believe in vaccines -- anger and frustration can build up as a once-gone disease make its way back into our backyards. But the attack approach is exactly the wrong one if pro-vax parents actually want to make a difference.

The two main things that seem to get repeated:

  1. Families who don't vax are making uneducated decisions or they are idiots who follow Jenny McCarthy.
  2. The rest of us are doing something for the “greater good” and they should too.

Both are wrong. And it's only when we accept this that we'll actually start to look for solutions to the non-vaccinating problem.  

The idea that parents who don’t vaccinate do so out of ignorance actually belies a truth that many would wish not to admit: Based on research, these families actually tend to be quite educated, upper-middle class, and do a lot of research into vaccines before making this decision (no, they don’t "Google" vaccines and just follow whatever pops up). Contrary to the idea of a parent who reads and subscribes to quack theories, these families often spend a considerable amount of time reading the literature and coming to what should only be deemed an educated opinion.

The quack idea is appealing because it puts the behavior into the realm of illogical and is thus easily dismissed. But people can and do look at the research pro-vax parents read and are coming to a totally different conclusion. To fall back on the rhetoric that these people are making uneducated decisions means putting a wall between the two sides.

Last time someone called you a quack or an idiot after you’d done your homework, how likely were you to listen to them afterwards?

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Some pro-vax parents may argue that there’s consensus among all the medical community about the benefits of vaccines, so how could any other opinion be “educated?”

In fact, there are dissenters to the number of vaccines our children get and to specific vaccines. There are also those who just feel we need more research on identifying those at-risk of serious complications or why these complications arise. Some of them are not fully anti-vaccination, but they highlight the risks and the holes in our knowledge and these are easy things for a parent, who may already be anxious about vaccines, to grab onto. There are questions unanswered and there are reasons -- not related to Jenny McCarthy -- that parents can be, and are, skeptical.

This brings us to point #2: The idea that we do these things for the “greater good” and others should too. 

Those who vaccinate do so because they have read the data, see the risks and benefits and have decided that the best way to protect their children is to have them vaccinated. It’s all very self-centered.

We may be somewhat altruistic as a species, but we aren’t necessarily that altruistic. In fact, we can see this when looking at adult booster rates: The CDC recommends boosters for at least six vaccinations, yet adults rarely actually get these boosters that help save the lives of all the babies who cannot be vaccinated.

If a non-vaccinating parent is self-centered, it's only they are looking at things from a different risk perspective.

For many who choose not to vaccinate, the risks of the vaccine are seen as equal or near equal to the actual risk of the diseases they protect against. This isn’t 100 percent wrong. 

If we take the current measles outbreak in the USA which started in 2014, there have been less than 1,000 cases and the risk of death is 1 in 1,000 once you’ve caught it. Factor in the risk of death and the risk of contracting the disease, and the risk of death becomes much lower, and that is what is being compared to the risk of the vaccine. In the USA right now, the overall risk of death is much lower than 1 in 1,000 because even though it’s spreading, it’s not spreading to the degree that doctors expect thousands of deaths. For someone comparing this risk with the risk of vaccines (which can include seizures, about 1 in 3,000 for the MMR vaccine, or permanent brain damage, less than 1 in 1 million for both the MMR and DTaP), the choice can seem like avoiding vaccines provides the lower risk, especially when combined with other health factors like diet, breastfeeding, sanitization, and so on.

Of course, many people will have seen the flaw in that the risk for measles is dependent upon vaccination coverage. If everyone used the same logic today and opted out of vaccination, we’d have a much worse crisis on our hands and the risk-benefit ratio would be flipped. 

But it is incredibly difficult for us humans to comprehend and act on future risk, especially when comparing it to possible real risks or realities at the moment. Vaccine risk is real, in-the-moment, and controllable -- whereas the risk of disease is abstract, in the future, and uncontrollable for most parents (because yes, even getting a vaccination does not result in immunity). As such, when we’re asked to choose, some parents will opt for the future risk which may not even come to pass over the more immediate and salient risk. This isn’t totally irresponsible, it’s something our human brains are wired to do over and over again.

More From The Stir: A Mom of 3 on Why She Doesn't Vaccinate Her Kids

We don’t know what’s coming, but we can control the here and now and we are far more willing to reduce current risk and accept possible later risk than increase the current risk to avoid later possible risks. Of course, the entire point of preventative medicine is to avoid these later risks. When it comes to vaccination, most parents agree to this premise because the fear of the disease is so great, even if we ignore the premise in many other areas of our lives.

So if the people that don’t vaccinate aren’t stupid and aren’t irrational and are acting in ways that they believe are best for their children, where do we go?

First, we need to address the issues that are within our control, such as the issue of under-vaccination. The same research that found that non-vaccinating families tended to be well-educated and of higher socio-economic status also found that under-vaccinating families (who also pose a risk to herd protection) tend to be of lower socio-economic status with limited access to healthcare. Finding ways to ensure that these children are vaccinated needs to be a priority. Whether it be traveling vaccination clinics or offering more vaccination days/options in daycares and schools, something needs to be done to ensure the families that want to be reached are given the opportunity to vaccinate.

Also, when dealing with those who are choosing not to vaccinate, pro-vax parents first have to accept that they are not stupid, illogical, or more self-centered than the rest of us. That type of thinking not only shuts down the discussions parents need to be having, but simply isn’t fair. 

Clearly the way society has approached the issue of vaccination has not been working. We have cross-pollination between the CDC and pharmaceutical companies, giving rise to the idea that there may be more business at play than has been acknowledged. Some parents approach talking to others in a “shut up and do it my way” manner which doesn’t hear the very real fears and concerns these parents have. Some doctors threaten to call CPS, acting like arrogant assholes, not care providers that are supposed to listen and talk to their patients and help them see the value in vaccination

This needs to stop. We need to consider more grassroots efforts on vaccination: Parent-to-parent discussions, mandatory clinics for those choosing a personal exemption, and more research into the area that result in the greatest of parent fears - adverse reactions. Most of all, though, parents have to listen. Pro-vaxxers have to know what the individual fears are (as they will vary) and acknowledge and accept them while also being able to point out the possible flawed logic in the risk-benefit analysis. 

More From The Stir: 'Why I Don't Vaccinate': 9 Moms Speak Out

If pro-vaxxers have the answers and as air-tight a case as many seem to believe, they shouldn't need to strong-arm people into vaccination. They just need to listen, empathize, and talk. The rest should follow naturally.

Do you think there's a middle ground for vaxxing and anti-vaxxing parents? What is it?


Image via shutterstock

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