Anti-vaxxer mentality is better tackled through empathy, not facts

As the world grapples with measles outbreaks, public health advocates are desperately seeking to improve vaccine attitudes. But the facts don't seem to be getting through. A new study says empathy is key.

It’s a fact that immunization currently prevents between 2 and 3 million deaths every year — from diseases like measles, influenza and polio. And it could prevent a further 1.5 million if more people were vaccinated.

But another hard fact is that, despite this, vaccination hesitancy is still rife. Which begs the question — why aren’t pro-vaccination messages more effective?

Read more: Why measles is so deadly and vaccination so important

"Victims of their own success"

Vaccines are, in a way, victims of their own success, says Brian Poole, lead author of a new study about overcoming vaccine hesitancy.

Science | 26.04.2019

They’re "so effective," he says, "that most people have no experience with vaccine-preventable diseases," and no idea just how dangerous and scary they are.

Global vaccination rates are declining, and previously eradicated diseases, like measles, are experiencing a surge around the world. In the first three months of 2019, there’s been a 300% increase in measles cases, compared to the same time last year.

Given the clear role unvaccinated people have played in these resurgences, the outbreaks are being attributed to so-called "anti-vax" mentalities.

Read more: Measles: German minister proposes steep fines for anti-vaxxers

Global vaccination rates have been steadily declining since the 1990s

Combating misinformation

But rather than just trying to combat anti-vaccine information, Poole says people need to be able to empathize with those that suffer as a result of their decision not to vaccinate.

As part of a new study Poole was involved in, which comes out of Brigham Young University in Utah, the US — a city which ranks sixth nationally for undervaccinated kindergartners — students opposed to vaccination were asked to interview people with vaccine-preventable diseases, like polio.

Researchers studied 574 students, 491 of which were pro-vaccine and 83 who were vaccine hesitant, according to a pre-study survey. By the end, nearly 70 percent of the students who interviewed someone with a vaccine-preventable disease moved from vaccine hesitant to pro-vaccine.

Half of the students talked to someone suffering from a vaccine-preventable disease, and the other half, the control group, interviewed someone with an autoimmune disease.  

One student said the experience of interviewing someone with tuberculosis — a deadly disease one can be immunized against — made the prospect of "getting a disease if I don’t get vaccinated seem more real."

The study found that confronting anti-vaxxers with the consequences of not vaccinating caused two thirds of people to change their minds

If we want to change negative attitudes towards vaccines, Poole says, exposing people to the consequences of not vaccinating "works much better than trying to combat anti-vaccine information."

"It shows people that these diseases really are serious diseases, with painful costs, and people need to take them seriously."

Vilification often unhelpful

As others point out, it’s also important to remember where these anti-vax sentiments stem from.

According to Jennifer Reich, professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Denver, asking "What’s wrong with anti-vaxxers?" isn’t the right question.

In her research on how parents come to decide to reject vaccination, she’s found most of these people make decisions not out of spite, but because they best align with their belief system.

An anti-vaxxer stance "doesn’t necessarily mean that parents don’t believe in science," she says, but rather that "they often trust their own instincts about their children more than they trust experts who may have data but do not know their family."

The public health implications of not vaccinating are severe and wide-reaching. Parents who reject vaccines introduce risk to many, including their own children and others. This is something Reich thinks "doesn’t come up enough in discussion."

But understanding what motivates people who reject vaccinations, she says, is key to thinking of how we can better connect with them and find ways "for them to feel invested in increasing community health for everyone’s children, not just their own."

6 of the deadliest superbugs

Candida auris

Making headlines in the US at the moment, Candida auris is an emerging fungus that's proving multidrug-resistant to antifungal medication commonly used to treat Candida infections. It's appeared on five continents so far and been so hard to get rid of some hospitals have had to close down to eliminate it. Healthy people aren't usually infected, but those who are unwell or need surgery are at risk.

6 of the deadliest superbugs

Pseudomonas aeruginosa

This highly resistant, "nightmare bug" has been classified by the WHO as one of the biggest threats to human health. Thriving in wet or moist places, it's one of the hardest bacteria to eradicate. It's usually only seen in people with weakened immune systems, but healthy people can also get ear and skin infections if they come into contact with it, especially after being around contaminated water.

6 of the deadliest superbugs

Neisseria gonorrhea

There's no vaccine for gonorrhea, so antibiotics are the only option for treating infections. But this sexually-transmitted disease is increasingly resistant to the drugs — azithromycin, cefixime and ceftriaxone — normally used to treat it. Two cases of so-called super gonorrhea were reported in Australia in 2018 and another two in the UK in early 2019. Another good reason to always wear a condom!

6 of the deadliest superbugs


This bug is best known for causing non-typhoidal foodborne infections, but it can also cause typhoid fever in humans. In the last few decades, a highly virulant, antibiotic-resistant strain has emerged. Spread through contaminated food and water, regions including Asia and Africa are experiencing epidemics of the drug-resistant bacteria.

6 of the deadliest superbugs

Acinetobacter baumannii

Ranked in the highest-risk category of pathogens by the WHO, this bug is commonly found in soil and water and can take on genes from other resistant bacteria. It's able to survive in healthy patients without causing symptoms, but can cause deadly lung, blood and wound infections in unwell patients. This is why outbreaks of Acinetobacter infections are usually seen in intensive care units.

6 of the deadliest superbugs

Drug resistant tuberculosis

Myobacterium tuberculosis is one of the world's leading infectious diseases, causing more than 1.7 million deaths each year. It's estimated that up to 13 percent of all new tuberculosis cases are multidrug-resistant — unresponsive to two of the most potent treatments — and six percent are extensively drug-resistant, unresponsive to even more. These sufferers are more likely to get diseases or die.