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For The Anti-Vax Movement, The Power Is In The Stories We Tell

New research reveals that we are deeply affected by anti-vaccination stories—even if we don’t believe them

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In March of this year, the film Vaxxed: From Cover Up to Catastrophe, a documentary about the supposed link between vaccines and autism, was pulled from the Tribeca Film Festival. The producer of Vaxxed, Andrew Wakefield, is objectively unreliable: His 1998 paper linking vaccines and autism was debunked and retracted, and Wakefield later had his medical license pulled. Festival founder Robert DeNiro wrote of the decision, “My intent in screening this film was to provide an opportunity for conversation... But after reviewing it over the past few days... we do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.”

Therein lies the question—even for skeptics, would there be harms simply from viewing Vaxxed?

A recent survey conducted by researchers from University of Michigan and University of Missouri-Columbia asked a very similar question. Namely, do anti-vaccination stories hold sway over an audience, even when they are easily disproven? Brian Zikmund-Fisher, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, says the research focused on VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System), an open government database in which anyone can report negative events they believe are linked to vaccines. There is no vetting of these stories, so if you call in and say, “All my teeth fell out because I got a measles shot,” your story is recorded. Proof is not required.

The research homed in on all adverse reports on the HPV vaccine in 2013, a year when seven deaths and 24 permanent disabilities were reported (out of 10 million vaccine doses). In virtually all the reported cases, vaccines were not found to actually be the cause of death or disability. Zikmund-Fisher and his colleagues presented varying levels of this information to 1200 randomized respondents. The researchers believed that the respondents who read the full, hard-to-believe reports would be most likely to believe the vaccine is actually safe. This is not the case.

“The individual stories of perceived vaccine harms were highly influential, even when people didn’t believe they were true,” the researchers write. “We are influenced by information even when we don’t believe it.”

Take, for instance, a highly dubious story about a two-year-old boy who died months after the HPV virus was administered. Even if respondents didn’t believe the boy’s death was connected to the vaccine, it led to greater fear and distrust of the CDC. Try it out yourself. Here is the full VAERS report on the boy we just mentioned:

“Sudden death. He was perfectly healthy. The vaccination is the only thing I can think of that would have caused this. Everything else in his life was normal, the same.”

Even if you learned it’s exceedingly unlikely the vaccine was connected to the death, it may be quite difficult to un-read. “Our data suggest that just learning about this death may have caused you to feel more negatively toward the HPV vaccine, even if you believed that the vaccine did not cause the death,” the researchers state.

Zikmund-Fisher noted that the pro-vaccine scientific community often isn’t armed with narratives that compel your emotions in this fashion. Rather, the argument is often made up of broad strokes and statistics touted by public health agencies. “The modal story of vaccination is boring—you get a shot, your arm hurts, you go home, and don’t get sick,” he says.

Perhaps the best method for convincing the public to get vaccinated would be to tell vivid stories, say, of all the individuals who died of pertussis in the last few years. Take note, CDC.

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