How can doctors and the public health community best address vaccine hesitancy? A group of distinguished panelists convened in front of an engaged audience At Ogilvy Washington last week to discuss the role of communications and education in informing parents about the importance of vaccination.

Tony Silva, Executive Vice President of Ogilvy Washington’s Social Change Group, kicked off the event titled When Science Isn’t Enough: Why Some People Have Stopped Vaccinating Their Kids. Silva set the stage for the panel by relaying the success of immunization, a health intervention that currently saves 2.5 million children from preventable disease each year. 

The panelists, Dr. Jon Andrus, Executive Vice President of the Sabin Vaccine Institute; Dr. Louis Cooper, Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics at Columbia University and Academy of Pediatrics Past President; and Dr. Linda Fu, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the Children’s National Health System of the George Washington University School of Medicine, all contributed unique perspectives to the conversation.

The recent outbreak of measles, along with increased vaccine hesitancy and denial in the U.S. and Europe, has highlighted the need for effective and coordinated efforts to communicate both the success and necessity of immunization. The panelists first provided insights into why anti-vaccination movements are emerging.

“We’re victims of our own success,” said Dr. Cooper. When every family in the U.S. saw the effects of diseases like polio, it didn’t take much to convince them that immunization was necessary, he remarked. Most of today’s younger generations have never seen a case of measles or polio, and therefore do not fully understand the terrible effects of these preventable diseases.

The panelists also discussed the dangers of vaccine misinformation and denial. To illustrate the harm done, Dr. Andrus relayed a story about Peru’s 2005 Rubella vaccination campaign. According to Dr. Andrus, as Peru was preparing to launch their vaccination campaign and corresponding communications materials, a prominent Parliamentarian incorrectly and publicly stated the Rubella vaccine causes autism. This one statement delayed the Rubella vaccination campaign for one year, resulting in ten cases of congenital rubella syndrome, a disease that can lead to autism, mental retardation, cataracts, hearing loss and cardiac defects. These cases, and the increased risk of autism, could have been prevented if the false remark had not been made.

Later in the panel conversation, Dr. Fu discussed strategies for approaching parents who may be vaccine hesitant. “People who are anti-vaccine are still pro-children,” she said. Dr. Fu also noted that it is important to meet each parent where they are at, and understand why they may be reluctant to immunize their children.

While pediatricians are still the most highly-trusted source of vaccine information for parents, the right spokesperson can play a crucial role in convincing parents of the benefits of immunization, the panelists agreed.

In terms of finding the right messaging, the panelists noted that there is no “silver bullet” message to convince parents. Instead, it is important to tailor messaging for individual circumstances and cases. The panelists also shared that in some cases, the messaging may have less of an impact than the person who is relaying it; moreover, presenting vaccine-hesitant parents with the scientific facts supporting the benefits of immunization has been shown to actually increase their reluctance to vaccinate their children.

Fighting vaccine hesitancy remains an uphill battle, yet the panelists remained optimistic. Dr. Cooper mentioned that public health organizations and professionals are getting much better at communicating about the benefits of immunization.

“The goal for me is that every parent expects their child to be immunized,” he said.  

Founded on the legacy of Dr. Albert B. Sabin, best known as the developer of the oral live virus polio vaccine, the Sabin Vaccine Institute communicates the benefits of immunization through increased vaccine advocacy and education. Driven by its mission to improve the lives of the world's poor, Sabin works to reduce the burden of vaccine preventable diseases globally.

To view tweets from the event, click here