With the recent announcement that the Irish government has signed on to receive four separate COVID-19 vaccinations, which are expected to be rolled-out in early January after they are approved by the European Union (EU), many believe that the end of this pandemic is firmly in sight.

However, attitudes surrounding vaccinations as well as research into effective communication suggest that things may not be as ideal as they seem.

Polling has indicated that up to 32% of Irish citizens would not take a COVID-19 vaccination and up to 8% of people, support vaccinations but would not take one themselves. These numbers suggest that even with the successful roll-out of a vaccine to the public, we may be far from the numbers needed to achieve herd-immunity and successfully prevent further outbreaks.

Anti-vax movements have emerged across Ireland in the past 20 years, promoting an unhealthy scepticism surrounding the safety of vaccines. We have seen the effect of these movements in recent years, with record numbers of measles cases being recorded across Europe in 2018, as well as outbreaks of measles and mumps across third-level institutions in Ireland in 2019.

Anti-vax beliefs have been spreading contagiously despite the overwhelming scientific consensus supporting the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, but Professor Brendan Nyhan of Darthmouth College has suggested that this is not good enough.

In a paper titled Effective Messages in Vaccine Promotion, Nyhan and colleagues measured the likelihood of parents to vaccinate their children before and after presenting them with an intervention that aimed to promote factual information concerning the MMR vaccine. Four different interventions were used, one which explained the lack of evidence connecting the vaccine to autism, one which presented information of the dangers that measles, mumps and rubella can cause, one which showed images of children suffering from measles, mumps or rubella, and one presented a narrative story about an infant who nearly died of measles. 

Of these interventions, not one increased the likelihood of parents to vaccinate their children.

This paper concludes that we are far from having an effective intervention to communicate information surrounding the safety of vaccines. Furthermore, the paper points out how the latter two interventions, which can be considered “shock-based interventions”, can actually decrease the likelihood of parents to vaccinate their children and increase belief in misinformation.

It is time we rethink how to approach anti-vaxers. Mocking and sneering hasn’t gotten us anywhere and presenting fact-based information hasn’t been shown to be much better. If helping children is our goal, we need to discover an evidence-based way to communicate.

In his book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains the difficulty involved in disagreement. He explains that the mind, like the tongue, has a number of “taste receptors” (officially known as moral foundations) which frame our perception of issues such as vaccine safety. In advising for better disagreements, he suggests showing respect and a willingness to listen to opponents while also recognising which moral foundations are colouring their opinion. If you know where your opponent is coming from, you can then state your own beliefs within the context of theirs, and effectively communicate with them.

The work of Haidt and Nyhan in far from complete, and the next few months are likely to show the need for more strong and reasoned research into this issue. The future of safe vaccinations can be achieved, but only if we learn to communicate effectively.

Conor McCloskey