Should pro-vaccine parents engage in the vaccination debate?

Originally a guest post in Vaccines Today.

Should pro-vaccination parents engage and debate with anti-vaccination parents who are posting misinformation in online discussion groups?

Vaccines are not 100% effective, some people cannot be vaccinated for health reasons and some vaccines cannot be given before a certain age. These facts mean that our vaccine decisions can and do affect other people, so there is a social element to vaccination. By not vaccinating ourselves, we could be endangering the life of a child too young to receive the pertussis vaccine for example.

As a collaborative social enterprise, there are further benefits. If enough people are vaccinated against certain diseases, herd immunity will emerge, providing a space for those who cannot be vaccinated for age or health reasons to be indirectly protected. And for some diseases, achieving and maintaining herd immunity can lead to its elimination and possibly eradication. Measles for example could be eradicated like this.

But there are risks associated with vaccination. While most of the adverse effects of vaccines are mild and transitory, there is a real, but tiny risk of more serious and long lasting reactions. We are also vaccinating against a backdrop of morbidity which means that temporal correlations of post-vaccination illness will inevitably happen and we are very good at noticing such things.

The possibility of a severe adverse reaction can be a stumbling block for some parents. Others don’t vaccinate because of anecdotes of illness following vaccination. And there are lots of other reasons, like becoming scared of vaccine ingredients and a general mistrust of science in general. But they all have one thing in common – they are based on simple logical fallacies, which allows us to answer the question of the title.

Because our vaccination decisions affect society and because by collaboratively embracing vaccination, other societal benefits emerge like herd immunity and disease elimination, we should engage with anti-vaccination parents. Because the reasons for not vaccinating are usually based on simple logical fallacies, it means we can engage as parents; we don’t need the detailed knowledge of professional health workers.

By getting involved with the countless anti-vaccination discussion groups and simply pointing out their logical errors, we may be able to partly neutralise the vast quantity of vaccine misinformation out there and reduce the number of people who choose to not vaccinate after “doing their research” on the internet. It is true that some sites will ban you after a few polite posts, but if enough parents engage in debate, this behaviour will become apparent and act as a ‘tell’ in its own right.