Dr Julie Leask, a social scientist in the medical faculty at the University of Sydney, has done much research and thinking on the issues around public acceptance, or otherwise, of vaccination.

She wrote an interesting article in Crikey today about the image problem of swine flu vaccination and the need for “full transparency from the authorities” to ensure public confidence.  The public will need to know the data the Government is using to assess the vaccine presented in comparison with data comparing the risks of swine flu in Australia, and that systems for reporting adverse events following immunisation are in place, she wrote.

Those who saw the whooping cough story on the 7.30 Report may be interested in her analysis of related issues.

She writes:

“Vaccination is mostly a technically rational practice but the decision to vaccinate is not usually made with a rational approach to the facts. Trust, desire for protection, good mothering all play a role. Fear is also a powerful motivator. In vaccine promotion terms, Toni McCaffery’s willingness to go public is a blessing. Parents who will do this crop up every few years. In the meantime, vaccination advocates struggle in fighting emotional anti-vaccine stories with doctors delivering dry (in comparison) verbal reassurances.

Often parents who go against vaccination do so with what they believe is lots of evidence (often from Jenny McCarthy’s “University of Google”) They also have entrenched belief systems. This 2% will be almost impossible to win over.

A few media reports lately have suggested we are having a drop in rates. This is a blow-up. There is no sign of this from national rates which remain stable at about 94% for two year olds. I am not aware of a fall in the northern rivers rates. It’s always been poor with about two thirds fully vaccinated.

The current approach to the anti-vaccinationism movement is missing the mark.

Health professionals often seem to think you can just feed vaccine dissenters the facts, educate them and this will correct wayward thinking.

This demonstrates a poor understanding of the anxieties and wider social shifts at the heart of vaccine debates. These include mistrust driven by poorly handled health scares (CJD in the UK), a thirst for discrete causes of idiopathic ills (eg, autism), increasing tendency to question medicine, middle-class “intensive parenting”, and the appeal of natural health practices.

Tactics like The Skeptics’ which seek to demonise antivaccination polarise the issue taking away any room for grey in a complex issue (vaccines are great but not perfect).

They also give the AVN a media profile which would potentially attract fence-sitting new paid-up members who otherwise would not have contacted the once nearly bankrupted AVN.

One has to wonder whether appeals to availing oneself of the truth and facts will work with GenY parents who were raised to value the fundamental truth of the personal narrative. We need to consider new models of addressing vaccine scepticism. This first requires better understanding of the current landscape.

The best strategies will be evidence-based, tailored to parents’ needs and contemporary. They will be resource intensive and require consultation and listening, not lecturing.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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