Since mid-December, dozens of measles cases have been reported in California and other western states. The outbreak, which is believed to have originated with a measles-stricken Disneyland visitor, has heightened concerns surrounding a small but growing number of unvaccinated children. According to public health officials, not only are these children at risk of infection themselves, they are also capable of weakening herd immunity. Herd immunity is the protection otherwise vulnerable people—infants, cancer patients, the elderly—enjoy simply because pathogens have difficulty circulating when a population has sufficiently high vaccination rates. But herd immunity may be faltering, and once-tamed diseases may be on the prowl. Under these circumstances, public health officials are puzzled and dismayed that many parents stubbornly refuse to have their children vaccinated.
How should public health advocates counter anti-vaccination sentiment?
Take a hard line. Demand that we restrict the philosophical/religious exemptions to immunization. Raise the possibility of imposing sanctions on recalcitrant parents.
Launch aggressive, coordinated public relations campaigns. Circulate the essential facts. Propound well-reasoned arguments in favor of immunization.
Engage anti-vaxxers on an emotional level. Understand and respect their anxieties. Suggest new, reassuring ways to think about immunization.
Discourage any official interventions. Instead, trust that in the marketplace of ideas, optimal outcomes emerge naturally through give-and-take interactions among individuals.