Exposing Anti-Vaxxers to Realities of Diseases Improves Attitude on Vaccines


New research has found that exposing people skeptical of vaccines to the pain associated with vaccine-preventable diseases works better than facts in increasing their support of vaccines.

The growing hesitancy among a portion of the public to have their children vaccinated has led to outbreaks of measles, mumps, and other previously eradicated diseases, with approximately 880 individual cases of measles confirmed in 24 states. Government and health agencies have expressed major concerns for the anti-vaccine trend and have tried a variety of approaches to convince anti-vaxxers to change their minds.

However, researchers from Brigham Young University have found that exposing anti-vaxxers to the pain involved in vaccine-preventable diseases may be the key in convincing them of the dangers of refusing vaccinations.

The team of researchers designed an intervention for college students in Provo, Utah, which is a city that ranks sixth nationally for under-vaccinated kindergartners, in hopes of improving vaccine attitudes and uptake among future parents. The experiment included 574 students, 491 of whom were pro-vaccine and 83 were from vaccine-hesitant families, according to a pre-study survey.

For the study, half the students were asked to interview someone who experienced a vaccine-preventable disease, such as polio, while the other half (serving as the control group) interviewed someone with an auto-immune disease. Meanwhile, some students were also enrolled in courses that contained intense immune- and vaccine-related curriculum while others were enrolled in a course with no vaccine curriculum. 

One student who had interviewed a member of their church congregation who previously had shingles recalled the interview by saying, "the pain was so bad that she ended up at a pain management clinic where they did steroid shots into her spine. The pain meds didn't even touch her pain, even the heavy ones. For months, she couldn't leave the house." 

Another student interviewed her grandmother, who suffered from tuberculosis. In a press release, the student said of the experience: "I dislike the idea of physical suffering, so hearing about someone getting a disease made the idea of getting a disease if I don't get vaccinated seem more real.  

Researchers found nearly 70% of the students who interviewed someone with a vaccine-preventable disease moved from vaccine hesitant to pro-vaccine by the end of the study, even when they had no vaccine curriculum. Overall, 75% of vaccine-hesitant students increased their vaccine attitude scores, with 50% moving fully to a pro-vaccine attitude.

The researchers also found all vaccine-hesitant students enrolled in a course with intensive vaccine curriculum significantly increased their vaccine attitude scores, with the majority moving into the pro-vaccine category.

The study authors hope that other universities and government agencies will see their findings and consider using similar methods to improve vaccine attitudes. 


  • Deborah K. Johnson, Emily J. Mello, Trent D. Walker, Spencer J. Hood, Jamie L. Jensen, Brian D. Poole. Combating Vaccine Hesitancy with Vaccine-Preventable Disease Familiarization: An Interview and Curriculum Intervention for College Students. Vaccines, 2019; 7 (2): 39 DOI: 10.3390/vaccines7020039. Accessed August 8, 2019.

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