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  • Dr. Shane Owens

Talking to people who disagree with you on vaccination

I’m frustrated.

And I’m scared.

The day I started writing this, the local news announced the first adult case of measles in Suffolk County, NY. I live in Nassau County—immediately to the west—with my wife and children and I work in Suffolk. My wife works in Queens, closer to the epicenter of the outbreak. We’re all vaccinated, but you and I know that’s no guarantee that we are safe from the measles.

The morning I finished writing this, I heard on the radio that Maureen McCormick, who played Marcia on The Brady Bunch, is upset that an anti-vaccination group is using her picture on their website. There was an episode back in ’69 in which Marsha gets the measles. They made it look like no big deal. If you got the measles then, you just stayed home. The group using her image believes that staying home when you’re sick is good enough. After all, Marsha lived.

The Brady Bunch, unlike Game of Thrones, was not into killing off main characters.

I have advanced training and expertise. My ability to interpret scientific results and my friends who are experts in infectious disease and pediatrics all tell me that the measles can be deadly but is preventable through vaccination. I also know that the side-effects of vaccination are wildly exaggerated.

But every day you and I are confronted with more cases of measles, more stories about those who resist vaccinations, and the endless barrage of facts about measles and vaccination.

How can anyone possibly refuse to be vaccinated or to vaccinate their kids?

Our science is better than faith. And we care about our kids—and perhaps others’ kids—more than they do.

Except maybe it isn’t. And except maybe we don’t.

Let’s not let our fear and frustration get the better of us. Fear and frustration are what cause people to resist vaccination. If our reactions are valid, so are theirs. That our beliefs are derived from a painstaking process of trial-and-error and theirs from “evidence of things not seen” matters very little.

And people who resist vaccination love their children as much as we do.

Might there be a better way to have conversations with those who disagree with us about vaccination?

What would happen if we took a more motivational—as opposed to confrontational or patriarchal—approach to changing minds on vaccination?

What if we started by empathizing with the pain and frustration felt by people who resist vaccination? What if we acknowledged that their faith-based position is at least as strong as our science? What if we understood that those ideas are preached by people at least as powerful and attractive as our experts? Is it possible they love their children as much as we love ours?

Is it possible for us to help others see the disconnect between caring for their kids and resisting vaccination? Can we tell a story as entertaining and compelling as The Brady Bunch or Game of Thrones about a world in which measles and other diseases come back because people aren’t vaccinated?

Can we avoid arguing with people who disagree with us? Will fighting with or lecturing people help us move them or will it only strengthen their resistance? Will we get anywhere by calling people names? While laughter might be the best medicine for our frustration, will posting funny memes make anyone who disagrees with us think, “Yeah! That person clearly respects me enough to be trusted!?” What if we spent some time just listening to people who disagree with us? Could we change people’s minds if we showed more respect?

What if we learned to take a ride with resistance? Could we spend some time thinking about why they believe what they do? What if we considered that their faith and our science aren’t all that different? Better yet, what if we’re wrong about vaccination? How could we talk ourselves out of that?

Finally, what if we made our case for vaccination, expressed hope that they’ll change their minds, and left it at that? Could we motivate action by respecting the freedom and liberty granted each of us and by supporting their self-efficacy? What if we allowed people to make well-reasoned, healthy decisions about vaccination for themselves?

Given the trouble we’re having getting people to change their minds, is there much harm in trying something new?

This piece originally appeared on

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