Study shows Michigan's vaccine education plan could backfire

Mar 5, 2015

The Grand Traverse County Health Department created a new nursing position, in part to help enforce a new Michigan law requiring vaccine education.
Credit Aaron Selbig

Outbreaks of measles and whooping cough have died down in northern Michigan. But a new state law has gone into effect that makes it harder for parents to refuse vaccinations for their children.

Parents seeking a vaccine waiver for “philosophical” reasons will first have to meet with a public health nurse. Health officials hope the new law will reduce Michigan’s high waiver rate but research shows the plan could be ineffective – or even backfire.

Michigan is one of 20 states that allow “philosophical” vaccination waivers and it has the fourth-highest waiver rate in the country. Last year, the state legislature decided to do something about that.

Parents will still be able to get the waivers but first they’ll have to hear some vaccine science from a public health nurse.

Wendy Trute is Health Officer for the Grand Traverse County Health Department. She’s helping put the new Michigan law into effect.

“The sessions are really not to force anyone to vaccinate but it’s to inform them on the benefits and the risks of getting the diseases if they choose not to vaccinate, and to make sure that they have valid scientific resources and they can answer all the questions they have,” said Trute.

A 'one-sided' conversation

Don Piche is a chiropractor in Traverse City who is adamantly opposed to mandatory vaccination.  He thinks the conversations are likely to be “one-sided.”

“I wonder if they’re going to do the same thing with people who smoke?” asked Piche. “You’re 18 years old and you can buy cigarettes but first you’re going to sit down with a health nurse and … have a conversation about the effects of smoking.”

Much of the response to the resurgence of diseases like measles and whooping cough is just “hysteria,” said Piche. He thinks the government is overreacting to a relatively small problem with a “police state” action.

“To be quite honest with you, I’d sort of like to sit down with one of those people and say, ‘Wait a minute here. Let’s just talk face-to-face. Let’s not just get the propaganda and the state story. Have you looked at the data, other than just the talking points that you’re being told to tell me?’” said Piche.

'We were disappointed'

There’s research out there that shows it may impossible to change the minds of folks like Don Piche.

In 2011, a group of scientists tested more than 1,700 American parents, some of whom were opposed to vaccines and some who weren’t. They tried a variety of different messages on the parents to try to convince them that the MMR – or Measles, Mumps and Rubella – vaccine is safe and effective.

They gave them scientific facts and they even showed them pictures of children suffering from measles, mumps and rubella.

“We were disappointed to find out that none of the messages about the dangers of the diseases prevented by the MMR vaccine made people more likely to vaccinate,” said Dr. Brendan Nyhan, one of the co-authors of the study.

Nyhan said some of the messaging used in the study even appeared to backfire. Among people who held strong anti-vaccination feelings going into the study, the messaging actually reinforced their beliefs.

“We were definitely surprised and disappointed by this finding,” he said.

Defending your viewpont

Nyhan said that when you have your beliefs on a controversial issue challenged, human nature is to dig in and defend yourself.

“And in the process of defending that point of view, they can end up convincing themselves even more strongly of that belief than if they had never been corrected in the first place,” he said.

Trute said there are always going to be people you are not going to be able to convince.

“We’re not going to sit in a session with someone for two hours, trying to convince them. We’re going to be professional about it and we’re going to try not to put them on the defensive,” she said.

Trute says the county health department has only done a handful of the sessions since the new law went into effect January 1st. So far, no one has been convinced to change their mind about vaccines.