Messages on Vaccine Safety May Backfire

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Harvard Medical School
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Messages on Vaccine Safety May Backfire

News Review From Harvard Medical School

March 3, 2014

News Review From Harvard Medical School -- Messages on Vaccine Safety May Backfire

Childhood vaccines save about $10 in total costs to society for every $1 spent, a new study finds. But another study finds that messages about the value and safety of vaccines may backfire. The first study found that vaccines led to nearly $69 billion in medical and economic savings for U.S. babies born in 2009. In the other study, more than 1,700 parents answered questions about their attitudes toward vaccines. Then they were randomly divided into groups that received different messages. One message explained that there's no evidence that the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism. Another discussed the dangers of the diseases that MMR prevents. A third message featured a mother talking about her baby's severe illness with measles. The fourth message included photographs of children with illnesses that vaccines can prevent. None of the messages convinced more parents to vaccinate their children. The first message cleared up mistaken beliefs about the MMR vaccine and autism. However, parents then were less likely to say they would vaccinate their children. The third and fourth messages increased some parents' belief that vaccines are risky. The journal Pediatrics published the studies. HealthDay News wrote about them March 3.


By Henry H. Bernstein, D.O., M.H.C.M.
Harvard Medical School


What Is the Doctor's Reaction?

Most parents in the United States do choose to protect their children with vaccines. But some do not. These parents are unsure whether or not to vaccinate their children. They wonder if vaccines are safe and/or really needed.

Research just published in the journal Pediatrics tested different ways to encourage parents to vaccinate their children. Almost 1,800 parents completed online surveys about the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. Each parent was given one of these messages:

  1. Information explaining that studies have found no link between the MMR vaccine and autism
  2. Information about the dangers of the three diseases prevented by the MMR vaccine
  3. Pictures of children who have diseases prevented by the MMR vaccine
  4. A story about a baby who almost died from measles

Researchers collected information on the beliefs and feelings of parents about the MMR vaccine before and after they got one of the messages. Another group of parents did not receive any special messages. This was the control group.

Researchers found the four messages did not always work as expected:

  • None of the messages made parents more likely to vaccinate their children.
  • Explaining that the MMR vaccine is not connected with autism helped parents understand the facts. But, surprisingly, it made some parents less likely to vaccinate their child.
  • Pictures made some parents more likely to think MMR vaccine causes autism.
  • The story made some parents more worried about vaccine side effects.

Why did these pro-vaccine messages seem to backfire? This occurred mainly in parents who already were hesitant about vaccines.

Using scary pictures and stories made some parents more worried about vaccine safety. After hearing that there is no link between the vaccine and autism, parents may have been defending their own beliefs by thinking more about their other vaccine concerns.

Other pro-vaccine strategies need to be explored. Parents need to know they can trust vaccine information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).


What Changes Can I Make Now?

Vaccines have saved countless children from illness and death. The CDC, AAP and the American Academy of Family Physicians strongly recommend childhood vaccines.

  • Vaccines work. The number of infections from vaccine-preventable diseases has gone down by more than 90%. This is why diseases like measles and polio are no longer common in the United States. If vaccines are not given, the bacteria and viruses that cause these diseases could infect children again.
  • Vaccine-preventable diseases are still common in many parts of the world. Children who do not get vaccines could easily get one of these diseases while traveling or from a traveler.
  • Not following vaccine advice puts your children's health in danger. They could get one of the diseases that vaccines prevent. Many of these diseases can lead to serious illness that requires a hospital stay. They can even lead to death.
  • Vaccination means fewer days missed from work and school. These diseases can also cause lifelong disabilities that lead to expensive medical bills and long-term care.
  • Vaccination protects your family, friends and community. Getting vaccinated helps stop the spread of disease to others. This is especially important for protecting those who can't get the vaccines because they are too young or have immune-system problems.
  • Vaccines are safe. Before a vaccine is approved, it is tested a lot. Serious side effects are very rare. There may be some swelling or soreness where the child gets the shot. This is minor compared with the dangerous effects of vaccine-preventable diseases. The benefits of vaccines far outweigh the risks.

The CDC has released its latest vaccine advice for children 0-6 years old and 7-18 years old. These schedules offer the most complete and safest protection. Many vaccines are given as a series of shots (not just one dose). Some require a booster shot every few years.

Skipping or delaying any of the shots will leave your child unprotected for longer periods of time. But if your child has ever missed a shot, it's not too late to get caught up at the next doctor's visit.

Many parents still question the safety of vaccines. Incomplete or false information can be found on the Internet or in other media. So be sure to turn to a reliable and trusted source for vaccine information. Your doctor is one of them! Ask any questions you have about vaccines at your child's next checkup.

You can also find reliable information at these sources:


What Can I Expect Looking to the Future?

Everyone must work harder to make sure that all children are vaccinated. More studies are needed to find out which message strategies work best. Information might be most convincing if it comes from your doctor.

You can expect the pediatrician to talk with you about the critical importance of vaccines. The benefits and risks of each vaccine can be different. A parent who will not accept one vaccine may be willing to allow others.

Pediatricians also will continue to learn what are the most effective ways to respond to parents who refuse vaccines for their children. Strategies should be carefully tested before they are widely used.


Last updated March 03, 2014

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