Boris Johnson declaring war on anti-vaxxers is the sort of thing that no-one will disagree with unless, of course, they are the ones peddling dangerous myths about the effects of these preventative treatments on children. The Prime Minister today announced a crackdown on misleading claims about vaccinations, with plans for a summit with social media firms on how to stop vaccine myths spreading on their networks, and a push for GPs to promote catch-up vaccinations for children who’ve missed out.
The phenomenon of parents refusing to allow their children to be inoculated against deadly diseases has unfortunately become so widespread that the UK is now no longer measles-free. But how can the government change this? Earlier in the year, I interviewed one of the leading anti-vaxxers in this country, Magda Taylor. She claims she’s just trying to protect children, and that the scientific community always shout her down rather than trying to engage with her points. This may well be because the scientific community find it totally baffling that someone like Taylor, who has no formal qualifications relating to vaccination besides spending a lot of time on the internet, is holding any sway over parents’ decisions about their children’s safety.
It was certainly unsettling listening to her and knowing that she is part of the movement that has led to lower vaccine uptake in the UK. But the wall of anger that greets those sceptical about vaccines doesn’t seem to be helping change minds. Instead, studies have found that it is better to start debates about vaccines from a shared point of understanding, which is that both sides want to keep children safe. One group of researchers from the University of California decided to discuss with parents how vaccines protect children from deadly diseases, something that often gets forgotten in the debate. It had striking results: ‘Highlighting the common belief had a great effect and made parents three times more likely to vaccinate.’ They found common ground, they talked about something on which they could agree with the parents, and then it became easier to move on to the things that had scared those parents in the first place, such as the autism myth. More on that here.
Johnson’s language on the matter seems to have appreciated this. He has said that ‘from reassuring parents about the safety of vaccines, to making sure people are attending follow-up appointments, we can and must do more to halt the spread of infectious, treatable diseases in modern-day Britain’. Telling anti-vax parents that they’re idiots might make us feel better about a situation that many find scary. But if it doesn’t do much to change that situation, then we need a smarter approach. How much better would it be to try to find common ground on the fact that measles is a deadly illness, quite different to the rite-of-passage chicken pox that everyone recognises far better? Given those campaigners like Taylor play on parents’ fears about the alleged risks of vaccines, it’s worth reminding those nervous families that there is a proven and clear risk of shunning these treatments: that their own child could catch measles and die.