How to Talk to Anti-Vaxxers

by |February 8, 2019
vaccine needle

Research assistant Rachel Alter became a “pro-vaccine troll” so you don’t have to. Photo: Pixabay

When Rachel Alter started off as a graduate student, she expected to investigate epidemics, bioterrorism and disease eradication. But her focus started to shift after she began chatting with anti-vaxxers—people opposed to vaccination—on Facebook. Now, as a research assistant at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia’s Earth Institute, she wants to find ways to better communicate about vaccine safety.

In recent op-eds, Alter has called for a national movement to dispel the myths that feed into anti-vaccination fears. Despite an abundance of evidence showing that vaccines are perfectly safe and save lives, many people reject them, stoked by the frightening misinformation that spreads over social networks.

Vaccine refusal is having a real-world impact. Two decades ago, measles was all but eradicated from the U.S. Now, cases are skyrocketing, with more than 1,700 infections since 2010. Alter notes that in the first six months of 2018, more than 41,000 Europeans contracted measles and 37 died.

In her op-eds, Alter has argued that it’s time for a movement to battle the spread of false information about vaccines. She’s calling on organizations—such as FEMA, the Red Cross, and the American Academy of Pediatrics—as well as faith leaders and survivors to get involved in the conversation on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. She also suggests that celebrities could play an important role in setting a good example, and that schools could help students learn how to distinguish between credible and non-credible information.

What you can do

One of the most important things you can do to combat the resurgence of obsolete diseases is simply to get vaccinated. Not only does this help prevent you yourself from getting sick, but also makes it harder for the disease to find its way into your community, thanks to herd immunity. And when you get vaccinated, tell your friends. They’ll be more likely to get vaccinated, too.

You could also try talking to the people in your life who refuse vaccines. From her experience as a “pro-vax troll”—she’s been booted from several groups simply for sharing real science—Alter has learned a few lessons about navigating this sometimes tricky terrain.

She says that she sees three types of people in the anti-vax community. She rarely engages with the strongest vaccine opponents, nor the profiteers—people who make money from selling anti-vaccine hype—because those discussions are rarely fruitful. When she does, her goal is not to convince them to change their minds, but to have a public conversation with them so that people on the fence about vaccines can read along and come to their own conclusions. It’s those people on the fence, the less vocal majority in the Facebook groups she’s joined, that Alter hopes to convince.

“They’re people who just get so much information that they don’t know what to believe and they don’t know how to pick apart the real data from the fake data,” she explains. “They’re the ones who you can have fruitful conversations with.”

Here are a few of her strategies for engagement:

1. Be respectful. Nobody likes to be called an idiot or be told that they’re bad parents. “We have to come from a place of empathy,” says Alter. “The vast majority of [anti-vaxxers] are really just trying to do what’s best for their families and their kids, and they don’t have the science literacy to weed through all the information.”

2. Don’t bombard them with facts. Facts and statistics can be helpful, but too much at once can be overwhelming and exhausting. “Be mindful,” Alter advises. “Note how that conversation is going” and adjust accordingly. If it looks like someone else is handling it well enough without your input, sit back for a bit; you can always join in later.

3. Ask questions. Questions like “What is your concern about…” and “How do you perceive…” can get the conversation going in a way that doesn’t feel like an attack. They encourage the other person to examine their beliefs more closely, and can also help you to…

4. Find out where they’re coming from. Learning what’s important to your conversation partner can help you find common ground and suggest ideas that fit with their worldview. A variety of studies have found that vaccine opponents are pretty evenly split between liberals and conservatives, and they have a range of different reasons for rejecting vaccines. For many conservatives, for example, it’s a matter of having the freedom to make their own choices. So, Alter says, explaining that vaccination helps protect others in the community might resonate well with liberals, but fall flat with someone who places a higher value on personal liberty.

The World Health Organization has more helpful tips on how to respond to vaccine deniers. You can use a lot of this advice in other contentious areas as well, such as arguments over climate change.

The tip of the iceberg

Alter says that although it’s impossible for her to know whether her conversations have led to people getting vaccinated, sometimes people thank her for answering their questions. “I like to think that I’m actually affecting them, but I’ll never be able to prove it,” she says.

The conversations have helped her develop some new lines of research. She’s currently seeking approval for a study that would ask vaccine opponents, “What would you need to see, learn, or understand better before you vaccinate yourself or your children?” The study’s goal would be to compile reasonable suggestions to recommend to doctors and other stakeholders. Some of these suggestions might take the form of offering allergy tests before vaccination, for example, or listing what each ingredient in the vaccine is used for.

And she couldn’t have picked a better time to get involved. The World Health Organization names “vaccine hesitancy” as one of the 10 public health threats to worry about in 2019. “It’s such a growing problem,” Alter says, “and it seems like it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

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Rich S
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Rich S

There is a tax credit for children that was established during the Clinton administration. I have long felt that it should not be “no strings attached”. Why not require proof that the child of the taxpayer claiming the deduction is up to date with vaccinations?

If the parent making the decision decides not to vaccinate their child, they should lose the deduction. Many of the anti-vaxxers are likely not committed enough to their belief that they would give up the tax deduction.

Lee K.
Guest
Lee K.

This is a good post. I do have a question – what do we do with people whose entire objection to vaccines is based on a misguided belief that “chemicals” are bad? If the entirety of their argument is that vaccines contain a lot of scary-sounding compounds…. well, yes, that’s true. They do. Yet somehow no amount of the usual explanations (e.g. pointing out that the mercury compounds in vaccines are inert, that everything is made of chemicals, that they’ve been extensively tested for safety) seems to penetrate this barrier. When the opposing argument boils down to “vaccines sound scary,… Read more »

Christina
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Christina

The single biggest thing I would ask to see – as a scientifically literate, educated person who knows vaccines work as designed and declines to administer them – is the removal of vaccine research and production from the commercial/capitalist domain. As a public health matter, vaccine R&D and implementation should be entirely managed by public health institutions that have no profit motive attached. Ethically, those institutions would research and evaluate and fund all sorts of systems that benefit public health without bias toward systems that enrich industrialists. I just finished City if Thorns – about the world’s largest refugee camp,… Read more »

Donna Bass
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Donna Bass

Perhaps seeing that anti vaxxers are really really well read. They have found much of the ammunition they need from the very body of work you are pulling from. These people are afraid of damage to their children. Not just autism…but neurological damage that is a real danger. There are real dangers with vaccines. I didn’t make that up, and you know that is true. I realize these dangers are thought to be very rare but…its really easy to make a case for them being more common than we think. Let’s talk about potential damages. Let’s talk about how to… Read more »

Billk
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Billk

Lee,

I’m researching this and it is a very difficult area. Around half the population hears connotations of ‘bad things’ whenever they hear the word ‘chemical.’

A starting point is mercury. Thiomersal, the mercury containing preservative used in some vaccines is almost certainly absent from the vaccines they will mention. Here in Australia, there are only two vaccines that contain thiomersal: Yellow Fever and Japanese Encephalitis. None of the vaccines that are routinely administered to children contain it.

Dave
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Dave

Former antivaxer here and now a vaccinated nurse. For me it was a foundational worldview. I was convinced through watching YouTube and reading antivaxer literature that the vaccine developers had nefarious intentions. They designed these vaccines with the intent to do harm and depopulate the world. Peel back the layers of the fears people have about vaccines, and you will invariably find a Conspiracy Theory foundation, whether states or not. Not that bring into Conspiracy Theory is something new, but folks are naturally suspicious, and the YouTube stuff is do very scary. Suffice to say that once I began to… Read more »

T K
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T K

I like this thought, but not necessarily true for all.. for me hate to say it because it is so controversial, but what opened my mind to even look at this line of thought was when both my boys have been diagnosed with autism, and then my niece as well, and we have never had any autism in our family ever… please know as parents of autistic kids, and hearing 1 in 100 (is this the correct figure?) kids are autistic, and to hear the CONSTANT clamor and attention given to squelch ANY anti-vaccine discussion at same time relatively little… Read more »

Sandy
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Sandy

I have watched Bill Gates, one of the most pro vaxxer around, on 2 different occasions say that vaccines will help with the overpopulation of the earth.
You can’t unsee that.
Explanation please?

Joey
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Joey

I think it’s the half-truths out there that confuses well-meaning people. In this misinformation era, schools need to do a better job teaching people how to figure out whether they’re being mislead or not.

Iggy Semmelweis
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Iggy Semmelweis

The author would like to know “What would you need to see, learn, or understand better before you vaccinate yourself or your children?” I have a list, but will supply just a few items. 1, A study of the vaccine safety datalink that shows the health outcomes of completely vaccinated vs. completely unvaccinated individuals. The data is there. 2. A toxicology study showing the safe levels of injected aluminum adjuvants. It’s never been done, but vaccines contain this undisputed neurotoxin. 3. A better vaccine adverse event reporting system. According to the CDC’s own study, VAERS only reports less than 1%… Read more »

Marilyn
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Marilyn

The most ridiculous thing is that even the United States Dept of Health and Human Services doesn’t have studied on safety and efficacy and they could t get them because the vaccine manufacturers don’t have them, either. What a lark! I’ve yet to see any studies proving safety and efficacy and the vaccine inserts even state they haven’t been tested for carcinogenic or mutagenic properties or outcomes. I’d attach the legal documents verifying that US Dept of HHS doesn’t have them and the vaccine inserts but I’m unable to do so here.

Claire
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Claire

I find it interesting that people are so quick to blame vaccine hesitancy when the vaccines no longer work against mutations in genotypes. Take measles for example. The H1 genotype evades recognition by vaccine induced antibodies. Here is an article from 10 years ago. Also the people with solid, lifelong immunity are aging and dying so we now have vaccine immunity which is subpar. Why blame the hesitant and use them as a scapegoat for a failing pharmaceutical product which hasn’t been adequately safety tested? You sound like a person hired by a Vaccine PR firm and your articles are… Read more »

Teresa
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Teresa

I don’t think this article says what you think it says. It’s just making the case for continued surveillance. It says the opposite of what you claim: “This concurs with the epidemiological observation that the live-attenuated vaccine protects against both H1 variants. ” If wild measles endemic to Asia is mutating, then it stands to reason that vaccination is even more important, because if we want to cease mutation, we need to cease its proliferation. The claim you are trying to make would also bolster the idea that herd immunity is even more important, because by giving a foothold to… Read more »

Sandy
Guest
Sandy

I would love to be bombarded with scientific facts. I would love to see a study on vaccinated vs unvaccinated children. I would love for someone to tell me that the very real side effects listed on each and every vaccine insert is utter bull. I would like for others to read the book ‘The Whistleblower’ where an actual author of the 2004 MMR vaccine safety study admits to corrupting the data.
Please hit me with the science.