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How to change the minds of vaccine skeptics? Scare them.

(PNAS)

Scare tactics may be the surest way to get parents to vaccinate their children, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The participants in the study — led by University of Illinois researcher Zachary Horne — were randomly assigned to one of three groups.

One was essentially the scare tactics group: They learned about the disease risks from skipping routine immunizations, including hearing a mom's story about her child coming down with measles and seeing photos of kids with vaccine-preventable illnesses like rubella.

Another group was specifically told about all the research showing that vaccines don't increase the risk of autism — a fact-based approach. And there was a control group, which got information on an unrelated topic.

As you can see in the chart above, those who learned about the terrible things that can happen as a result of avoiding vaccines (far left, in green) recorded the greatest positive change in attitude.

If debunking doesn't change the minds of vaccine-skeptical parents — scaremongering might?

This latest study may offer clues about a new way of addressing vaccine skepticism. As the authors write, "Rather than attempting to dispel myths about the dangers of vaccinations, we recommend that the very real dangers posed by serious diseases, like measles, mumps, and rubella, be emphasized."

They suggest parents may be more responsive to "warnings (in the form of graphic pictures and anecdotes) of the severity of these diseases."

But what's interesting about this latest article is that it disagrees with previous research. This 2014 Pediatrics study, led by Dartmouth's Brendan Nyhan, suggested there was no effective way to change minds about vaccines.

Nyhan's other research has found that changing views on vaccines using facts and science can backfire, causing people to harden their vaccine opposition.

These studies used different designs, which might explain the varying conclusions. But they also point out that the newest study is by no means the final word; only more research can settle the debate.

We're ignoring adult health in the conversation about changing vaccine views

For now, there's still something missing in the discussion here: How do you enlighten adults about their own shots?

While this year's Disneyland measles outbreak became a lightning rod for the discussion about how to get parents to vaccinate their kids, it was actually adults who suffered in nearly half the cases.

According to the CDC's most recent data, the 159 measles cases recorded between January 4 and April 2 of this year included 60 adult patients who didn't even know whether they had been vaccinated against measles.

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