Vaccines back in the headlines – here’s what the experts say

A woman receives an MMR injection. Rebecca Naden/Reuters

September 16th’s Republican debate put vaccines back in the headlines, when Ben Carson, a former neurosurgeon, was asked to comment on Donald Trump’s statements linking vaccinations to autism. Carson said:

We have extremely well-documented proof that there is no autism associated with vaccinations, but it is true that we’re giving way too many in way too short a time and a lot of pediatricians recognize that.

This has sparked a flurry of reminders from physicians, scientists and others that vaccines are safe and that vaccines do not cause autism.

This is a discussion that we have covered again and again and again at The Conversation.

Yet these messages don’t seem to have counteracted misinformation about vaccines. That’s because these explanations often repeat the very falsehoods they are trying to correct. As Norbert Schwarz and Eryn Newman from the University of Southern California write:

[M]edia reports that intend to correct false information can have the unfortunate effect of increasing its acceptance. Using anecdotes and images makes false information easier to imagine – and by highlighting disagreement, they distort the amount of consensus that actually exists.

A better strategy, they say, is to stick to the facts.

Kristin S Hendrix, a professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, examined the research on parent-provider conversation about vaccines. She writes:

What is clear from existing research is that respectful, tailored communications and recommendations to immunize coming directly from the health-care provider are associated with increased vaccination uptake.

Before the measles vaccine was introduced in the US in the 1960s, we thought of measles as a “mild” illness, even though it killed 400-500 Americans a year. Today, suggesting that measles is benign is controversial. And that is because vaccines change how we think about the disease they prevent. As Emory historian Elena Conis writes:

Vaccines shine a spotlight on their target infections and, in time, those infections – no matter how “common” or relatively unimportant they may have seemed before – become known for their rare and serious complications and defined by the urgency of their prevention.

Marcel Salathé, now a professor at École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, points out everyone who can be vaccinated, should be vaccinated, to help protect those who are too young or too ill to receive the vaccine. Tony Yang, a professor of health administration at George Mason University, looked at the impact vaccine exemption polices have on outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. And Michael Mina, an MD/PhD candidate at Emory, explained how the introduction of the measles vaccine in Europe prevented deaths from other diseases.

Speaking of other diseases, just over a year ago, news that a handful of people in the United States had contracted Ebola was dominating the headlines. William Moss, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, pointed out that Americans should worry less about Ebola and more about the measles.