Last year, the US saw the highest number of measles cases since the disease was declared eliminated in the country in 2000. Many health experts believe the epidemic was fueled by lack of vaccination, primarily as a result of concerns about vaccine safety. But a new study claims there is a way to encourage positive attitudes toward vaccination.

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Researchers say warning vaccine skeptics about the dangers of measles, mumps and rubella may encourage positive attitudes toward the MMR vaccine.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study suggests reminding people how deadly measles can be and that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine can protect their children may encourage vaccination.

However, telling vaccine skeptics that their concerns about vaccine safety are inaccurate and uninformed is unlikely to sway their views, finds the research.

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 79% of measles cases in last year's outbreak occurred among individuals who chose not to receive the MMR vaccine due to personal beliefs - particularly worries about its safety.

"Myths about the safety of vaccinations have led to a decline in vaccination rates and the re-emergence of measles in the United States, calling for effective provaccine messages to curb this dangerous trend," say senior author Keith Holyoak, professor of psychology at University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), and colleagues.

The researchers note that previous studies on the attitudes toward vaccination indicate that it is hard to change perceptions of vaccine safety among skeptical individuals. But in this latest study, the team identified an approach that they say could encourage positive attitudes toward vaccination.

A nonconfrontational approach more effective for encouraging vaccination

To reach their findings, Prof. Holyoak and colleagues enrolled 315 adults from the US. Around a third of participants had favorable attitudes toward vaccination, while the remaining participants held some degree of skepticism toward vaccination. Around 10% of skeptics had significantly negative attitudes toward vaccines.

Fast facts about measles
  • Measles is a highly contagious virus that lives in the mucus of the nose and throat. It is spread through coughing and sneezing
  • The measles virus can live for up to 2 hours in an airspace where and infected person has coughed or sneezed
  • Children under the age of 5 years and adults over the age of 20 are at highest risk of complications from measles.

Learn more about measles

The participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups, with positive and negative attitudes toward vaccination represented equally in each group.

In one group, participants were asked to read material from the CDC stating that all children should receive the MMR vaccine and that it is effective and safe. The CDC material also explained that while many parents worry that the vaccine causes autism, many studies have shown there is no such association.

Another group was provided with materials that explained the dangers of measles, mumps and rubella and stated that the MMR vaccine can protect against these conditions. In addition, the participants read a statement from a mother whose 10-month-old son's life was threatened after contracting measles.

The final group acted as a control group. Here, participants were required to read material about feeding birds.

The researchers found that among individuals who were skeptical about vaccination, only those who were given materials explaining the dangers of disease and the protection vaccination can provide developed more positive attitudes toward vaccination. Skeptics who were given CDC material experienced no change in vaccination attitudes.

"It's more effective to accentuate the positive reasons to vaccinate and take a nonconfrontational approach - 'Here are reasons to get vaccinated' - than directly trying to counter the negative," explains Prof. Holyoak. "There was a reason we all got vaccinated: Measles makes you very sick. That gets forgotten in the polarizing debate on whether the vaccine has side effects."

The vaccination attitudes of both parents and non-parents in each of the three groups were affected in exactly the same way, according to the team.

The researchers say their findings suggest there may be more effective ways to boost vaccination support in doctors' offices, by showing families videos depicting the dangers of disease, for example, or by doctors adopting a nonconfrontational approach when talking to individuals who have negative attitudes toward vaccination.

Co-lead study author Derek Powell, a psychology graduate at UCLA, adds:

"People who are skeptical about vaccines are concerned about the safety of their children. They want their kids to be healthy. That's also what doctors want. Instead of fighting their misconception, remind them why the vaccine is the best way to keep their kids safe."

In February, a Spotlight from Medical News Today took an in-depth look on whether ongoing concerns about vaccine safety are to blame for the measles epidemic.