The decision of the NSW Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing today to revoke the Australian Vaccination Network’s charitable status will no doubt have a substantial impact on the group.

It was the right decision as this group should never have held a charitable licence.

However, it is unlikely to change the numbers of people rejecting vaccination, which has always been fairly small in Australia.

Here are some of the myths that have been perpetuated in our genuine concern about the impact of the anti-vaccination lobby on Australian parents.

I also try to explain what drives vaccine refusal or delay and make a few suggestions on what needs to be done about this problem.

Myth 1: More and more parents are rejecting vaccines nowadays. — Child vaccination rates have remained stable in Australia over the past decade. More than 92% of two-year-olds are fully vaccinated by the age of two. Attitudinal trends show very small shifts in public support for vaccination. Vaccine refusers tend to live in clusters, giving diseases more of a foothold in these communities. But refusal rates in these areas, while concerning, are largely unchanged.

Myth 2: The anti-vaccine lobby is more active than ever. — Anti-vaccinators have been just as active in the past as they are today. For example, in the late 1990s, media articles reflected a similar sort of outrage seen recently about people who don’t immunise.  In Australia today about three in every 100 parents actively reject vaccination. This number has not changed over the past decade, despite the continued activity of the anti-vaccination lobby.

Myth 3: Vaccine scare stories in the media will put parents off vaccinating. The vast majority of parents support vaccination. They see it as a way of protecting their children. It’s actually quite hard to put them off. (I sort of tried in this experiment)  I learnt from this and other research that the public has a profound fear of many of our vaccine-preventable diseases and a profound desire to protect children from them. Therefore, it usually takes more than just one frightening media program or website to put a parent off vaccinating their baby.

For a vaccine scare to have an effect, it must get sustained media coverage then begin to enter everyday conversations — mothers groups, family and online environments and so on. The refusal of that vaccine then seems the “fashionable” thing to do. But one only really sees the impact on vaccination rates once doctors and nurses start to doubt the vaccine. This is because they have the greatest influence on parents’ decisions to vaccinate. This occurred with the MMR-autism scare in the UK.

Myth 4: The media only report the scare stories on vaccination. — The vast majority of mainstream news media stories about vaccination are positive, such as urges to have an annual flu vaccine; stories of measles outbreaks, etc. But they tend to be less memorable than the vaccine scare stories. The latter trigger emotional reactions such as fear or anger, so we remember them.

Myth 5: Parents just need the facts and they will vaccinate. — This naively assumes that parents make decisions based on entirely rational assessments of the risks and benefits of vaccination. Human behaviour is complex and informed by all sorts of factors — education, family and friends, past experiences and so on. Trying to convince somebody with strong convictions to change their mind can make them more set in their beliefs. Alternative approaches are needed that work with people and develop a winnable plan. Sometimes it’s better for doctors and nurses to save their precious time for the fence-sitters.

Peter Fray

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