How to Change an Anti-Vaxxer’s Mind

Why anti-vaxxers don’t believe vaccines are safe and what you can do to make them reconsider.

Happy Friday morning everyone! Today’s newsletter is about anti-vaxxers. For the longest time, it was really difficult for me to understand why some people are against vaccinating their children. It made about as much sense to me as the flat earth theory (which I also hope to write about soon). I now feel that I have a greater understanding of why people don’t believe in the efficacy and safety of vaccines and even know how to change (some of) their minds.

Comments are on for this article, and I want to hear your thoughts and opinions. Do you personally know any anti-vaxxers? Do you hear about their beliefs mostly on social media or in real life? Have you ever had an argument or discussion with someone about vaccines? Jump straight to the comments by using the button below.

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Vaccines are extraordinarily safe and do not cause autism. They protect us against many horrible diseases, like polio, whooping cough, measles, mumps, and rubella. Over the past two decades, vaccines have saved the lives of 732,000 children in the U.S. and prevented over 300 million kids from getting sick. Why, then, does a growing portion of the population not vaccinate their children?

Who are anti-vaxxers?

To understand why people believe that vaccines are harmful, we must first know who believes that vaccines are harmful. Most southern states tend to have relatively high vaccination rates, and west coast states, such as California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington have relatively poor vaccination rates. We know from various studies and the National Immunization Survey that anti-vaxxers are often white, college-educated, middle or upper class women.

Women are the ‘chief medical officers’ in their homes and make the vast majority of the healthcare decisions for their children. Men aren’t usually the ones making decisions about vaccination, so they aren’t required to have an opinion about vaccines. If men carried the burden of making family medical decisions, I’m sure more men would be anti-vaccination. It’s not difficult to understand why anti-vaxxers are mostly women, but why are college-educated parents rejecting vaccines? It seems like the more educated you are, the more likely you would be to accept the medical science and benefits of vaccination, but the opposite is true.

Jennifer Reich, sociologist and researcher at the University of Colorado and author of the book Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines believes that vaccine resistance is a form of privilege. Reich says that educated mothers develop a sense of entitlement that helps them decide which vaccines are unnecessary. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said that “these Caucasian, suburban, educated parents believe they can Google the word vaccine and get as much information as anybody.”

In other words, anti-vaxx parents are too smart for their own good. They believe they are educated enough to make decisions about vaccinating their children and ignore medical authorities, like doctors, because they think they know better. This belief that they know better may come from a sense of arrogance or simply a distrust of doctors and the U.S. medical system.

Reasons parents are against vaccination

Now that we know who anti-vaxxers are, let’s explore the reasoning behind their beliefs. Not everyone who is against vaccination is against it for the same reason, of course. These reasons usually fall into at least one of four different categories: religious reasons, personal beliefs or philosophical reasons, safety concerns, and a lack of information from healthcare providers. 

1. Religious reasons

Many parents claim that vaccination conflicts with their religious beliefs. A recent study suggests that some parents are making false claims about their religious beliefs in order to qualify for an exemption from vaccinating their child. The percentage of kindergarten children whose parents claim that vaccination conflicts with their religious beliefs has gone up in recent years, even as participation in organized religion has gone down. 

All states provide medical exemptions from vaccination, but if your child doesn’t qualify for a medical exemption the only way to not vaccinate your child in some states is to claim a religious exemption. Some anti-vaccination parents are forced to choose between vaccinating their child, which they believe could be extremely harmful, or lying about their religious beliefs. Many are choosing to lie about their religious beliefs.

Some people believe that everyone medically able to be vaccinated should be vaccinated, regardless of the parents’ beliefs or wishes. Mandatory vaccination would have some negative consequences for personal liberty, though. Parents would not be able to do what they believe is best for their children. However, mandatory vaccination would certainly be positive for society as a whole. Children who cannot get vaccinated because they aren’t old enough yet or because they medically aren’t able to are much safer when everyone else is vaccinated. A parent choosing not to vaccinate their child could potentially put another child’s life at risk.

2. Personal beliefs or philosophical reasons

Some states allow parents to exempt their children from vaccination by claiming it conflicts with their personal beliefs. Vermont was one of those states until 2016, when they eliminated the personal belief exemption. After that, religious exemption claims went up seven-fold.

No major religion prohibits vaccination, and some even consider it an obligation. For most anti-vaccination parents, it’s unlikely that vaccinating their child is in conflict with their religion. Based on what happened in Vermont, most parents claiming an exemption based on religious beliefs would probably instead describe it as a personal belief if they were able to.

3. Safety concerns

Most parents who don’t vaccinate their children believe that vaccines are unsafe. A study conducted last year found that 45% of adults in the U.S. have at least some doubts about the safety of vaccines. The percentage of children who aren’t vaccinated has quadrupled since 2001, and 1.3% of children born in 2015 have not received any vaccinations. This means only a small portion of Americans who doubt the safety of vaccination actually go through with preventing their child from receiving vaccines. 

However, the vaccination rate for individual vaccines is much more troubling. While 98.7% of children have received some vaccination, only 92.7% have received three or more doses of poliovirus vaccine, and 91.5% have received one or more doses of MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella). Other vaccines have an even lower coverage rate. Only 59.7% of children were up-to-date with the hepatitis A vaccine, 73.2% were caught up with rotavirus vaccination, and coverage for the HepB birth dose was at only 73.6%

These vaccination rates are troubling because for good, successful herd immunity we need more than 90% of the population to either be vaccinated or have immunity. There are several vaccines with less than 90% coverage and others hovering around 90%. Some kids can’t get vaccinated, through no fault of their own, and parents who choose not to vaccinate their children are putting other kids at risk.

4. Lack of information from healthcare providers

Some parents are against getting their children vaccinated, but may be open to changing their mind if they receive the proper information about the importance and safety of vaccines from their healthcare provider. Some doctors may be dismissive of parents’ concerns about vaccines, and this could lead to parents seeking information elsewhere, which may not be reliable or true.

Many anti-vaxxers won’t change their mind about vaccines no matter how much information they’re confronted with and will never trust their medical providers. This distrust of the U.S. medical system is not completely unwarranted. Some doctors have a history of overprescribing opioids and are beholden to large pharmaceutical corporations. We are currently experiencing a global pandemic, and millions of Americans have lost their job and health insurance. You might expect health insurance companies to also be suffering, but they’re actually doing great. The healthcare industry is set to make record profits due to the death and hospitalization of millions of Americans.

It’s easy to see why many people, including anti-vaxxers, have trouble believing the U.S. medical system is altruistic and trustworthy. This understandable lack of trust can lead to parents seeking information from unqualified sources instead of healthcare authorities.

Significantly increasing the vaccination rate of children would require Americans to have more trust in the medical system, which would probably require a complete overhaul of healthcare in this country. It is my personal belief that healthcare should not be run like a business, and that the for-profit medical system does not put patients first. It is impossible for people to fully trust that their doctor is going to do what is best for their health, no matter what, when many doctors have a financial incentive to do otherwise. 

How to change an anti-vaxxer’s mind

Interacting with parents who don’t vaccinate their children can invoke anger, as they are endangering not only their own children but all children that interact with their unvaccinated kid. It is best not to berate or attack anti-vaxxers, though. Research shows that attacking people with information that goes against what they believe in only makes them more convinced of their existing beliefs. They are doing what they believe is best for their children, and must be approached with kindness, respect, and understanding. Everyone wants what is best for their kids; anti-vaxxers are no different from other parents in this regard.

Anti-vaxxers can and do change their minds about vaccines. A 2015 study showed that anti-vaxxers can change their mind by looking at photos of vaccine-preventable diseases and personal accounts of those affected by such diseases. In the same study, facts from the CDC about the safety of vaccines didn’t really move the needle; it was only when people were exposed to the dangers of disease that they became more open to the safety of vaccination.

We’ve seen a similar situation play out with coronavirus. Everyone was warned by China and the World Health Organization weeks to months in advance to prepare for COVID-19. How many countries listened? Not many, but several that were prepared, like South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore, had experience with SARS in 2002-03. It goes to show that people often fail to act based on information alone. Experience with a disease, and seeing the damage a disease can cause first-hand, seem to invoke greater reactions.

If you want to change someone’s mind about vaccination, be compassionate and understanding. Don’t dismiss their beliefs as ignorant. Many anti-vaxxers don’t have trust in the government or medical system, so information about the safety of vaccines from doctors and other authorities may not change their mind. It’s likely that they’ve been misinformed about the dangers of vaccines and unlikely they are properly informed about the dangers of diseases. Showing anti-vaxxers how harmful the diseases we vaccinate against are - and the damage they could do to their children - may force them to reconsider their beliefs about vaccines.

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