Officials in Clark County, Washington, have declared a public health emergency after an outbreak of measles infected at least 22 people. Nineteen of the 22 confirmed sick were not vaccinated.
Just across the Columbia River from Portland, which is having a measles outbreak of its own, vaccination rates in Washington state have plummeted over the past decade. As KATU2 News reported, 91.4 percent of kindergartners were vaccinated during the 2004-2005 school year. By the 2017-2018 school year, the rate was down to 76.5 percent.
Measles is a highly contagious disease. Symptoms include fever, rash, cough, and flu-like symptoms, and it can also be deadly, especially in young children. In the early 1980s, millions of people across the world died from measles each year, but as global vaccination programs spread, that number was down to 73,000 by 2014. Most cases of measles today are found in the developing world, but while rates are going down everywhere else, in the U.S., they're actually going up thanks to parents who refuse vaccinate their kids because their astrologer told them it causes autism.
Vaccines work—particularly the measles vaccine, which has prevented millions of deaths every year. And yet, for the last couple of decades, otherwise not-crazy people have been refusing to vaccinate their children because, against all evidence, they've bought into anti-science propaganda. And these aren't just people who watch Alex Jones and voted for Trump; they're people who send their kids to Waldorf Schools and donate to Planned Parenthood in Mike Pence's name. This latter group may believe in climate change, evolution, and other things right-wingers refuse to admit are real, but when it comes to vaccines (and GMOs), all reason goes out the window.
So, what's to be done about this public health problem? According to a team of psychologists from UCLA and the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, anti-vaxxers' minds can be changed, but it has to be done carefully. In a 2013 study, the team polled people who were skeptical of or held negative attitudes towards vaccines, as well as people who held positive views of them. They divided 315 study participants into three groups with an equal representation of all views.
One group read material from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explaining that vaccines are safe. This, according to the researchers, didn't change anyone's preconceived attitudes towards vaccines.
The next group, the control group, was given a statement to read about bird feeding. This also did not change anyone's mind about vaccines, although no word on how it impacted their feelings about crows.
The third group was given material that described what measles and other infectious disease actually do to the body and how vaccines prevent the spread of disease. Perhaps crucially, this group was also shown photos of kids with these disease and asked to read a statement from a mom whose kid had almost died from measles. And this approach, according to the researchers, actually had some success, as participants who'd previously been skeptical or negative about vaccines showed an increase in support for them after.
Of course, not everyone will be convinced by photos of cute kids needlessly suffering, but if there's an anti-vaxxer in your life who needs an attitude change, send them a link to a rash-covered baby and tell them it's a video of a cat walking on its back legs or something. It might not work, but unlike measles, the lie probably won't hurt anyone.