Your neighbour is telling you about his new baby. He feels nervous about vaccinating, and says he’s considering delaying Lucy’s vaccines. Your mother’s group is chatting about vaccines. One mother tells the group Jimmy isn’t vaccinated, and she’s using the Immune-Strengthening Diet instead.
In a Facebook parenting group, someone comments we shouldn’t trust pharmaceutical companies because they’re covering up studies showing vaccines cause autism.
These and similar scenarios may sound familiar. So what do you do when you’re faced with someone who questions vaccination? Do you try to convince them to vaccinate? Do you ignore them? Or might something else work?
Talking about vaccination can be really difficult. Vaccination touches on strong values, like protection of children, social responsibility, and respect for science.
So, if you’re a vaccination supporter, you may feel perplexed, even angry, when people don’t vaccinate their children. If you’re a parent who has overcome minor worries and vaccinated your child, it can be galling when another parent dismisses vaccination, putting others at risk.
But talking about vaccination can also present pitfalls. Attempting to convince someone with strong views they’re wrong can strengthen their commitment to their position.
Our work, with a team of researchers, clinicians and the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, shows the best way to respond depends on the situation. Your approach will be very different with a person who has fixed negative views on vaccination, compared with someone who is cautious. How you respond also depends on what is most important in your relationship.
Here are some options.
1. Don’t go there
This approach is handy if you encounter a person with fixed beliefs. They may say, “I’ve done my research.”
Your automatic response may be to counter their claims, saying “The science is clear. Vaccinate your kids.”
But if the relationship with this person isn’t important to you, or their emphatic pronouncements are unlikely to do harm, then little is gained by engaging. People with fixed beliefs don’t budge much.
You may encounter active opposition to vaccination on social media. A small number of anti-vaccination activists colonise online forums.
So avoid protracted conversations. Facebook’s algorithm privileges posts with high engagement, so your interactions may bring them even more attention. Energised by the response, anti-vaccination activists may coordinate and bombard you or your organisation.
This is what happened to US clinic Kids Plus Pediatrics in Pittsburgh. The clinic eventually produced a guidebook on how to handle anti-vaccination attacks.