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Fear and misinformation are obstacles to measles vaccinations

May 14, 2019 10:04 pm

In the United States, medical experts were stunned recently to learn that measles, once thought eradicated, has returned.

Measles is making an undesirable comeback because of fear and misinformation. An ambitious quest to conquer measles came tantalizingly close to success, but it has slipped away because of ignorance. If we’re going to defeat measles once and for all, we will have to overcome the worst adversary of all: simple human behavior.

The U.S. is in the midst of the worst measles outbreak in decades and it is spreading. The Twin Counties felt a twinge of disquiet when the state Health Department announced last week that a Greene County person contracted measles in the Brooklyn.

Vaccinations have saved the lives of millions of children by preventing illnesses such as diphtheria, smallpox, measles and tetanus.

Yet many people are unwilling to get their shots or vaccinate their children.

Results of a new study, published last week in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, draws on hundreds of studies on psychology, behavioral science and vaccinations, according to a report from the Washington Post News Service.

The study concluded that using education campaigns, and trying to persuade people to get the shots, is far less effective than using indirect behavioral nudges, according to the Washington Post article.

The reason most people don’t get vaccinations for themselves or their children, the study found, isn’t because they need convincing but because they perceive inconveniences or obstacles.

“When it comes to vaccines, I think we have this optimistic belief that just by telling people facts you can change their behavior,” said Noel Brewer, the study’s lead author. “But when was the last time someone told you one fact and suddenly you lost five pounds or started brushing your teeth?”

The study’s findings were released at a time when a small but vocal contingent of anti-vaccination advocates have been spreading misinformation about vaccines, to the frustration of public health officials.

Outbreaks like the one we are now experiencing nationwide are frustrating simply because of how preventable they are.

Stopping misinformation with facts and getting over the fear of vaccines is a good start, but individuals who fail to get vaccinated themselves or keep their children away from vaccinations should not be surprised when others question the decision for one that affects many. Sometimes, nothing works as well as public pressure.