In an effort to curb the dangerous trend of vaccine avoidance, the Liberal government in Ontario wants parents seeking vaccine exemptions for their kids to attend a mandatory education session. It’s a good idea, but getting anti-vaxxers to change their opinions will probably require more than that.
The Liberals in Ontario are pursuing an amendment to the Immunization of Schools Pupils Act that would require anti-vaxxers to attend a science class at their local public health unit. Which is a damn awesome idea. It would do anti-vaxxers well to learn about the latest science, how vaccines work, and why their reluctance to vaccinate their children puts other children at risk.
“Choosing to vaccinate your child protects them from disease, and it protects vulnerable children who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons. That’s why it’s important for parents to keep their children’s immunizations up to date,” Ontario Minister of Health Eric Hoskins said in a statement. “If passed, the proposed amendments to the Immunization of School Pupils Act would help parents and guardians make informed decisions about vaccination.”
Anti-vaccination beliefs cause actual harm, as witnessed by the recent measles outbreak in both the United States and Canada. We need to attain so-called “herd immunity,” to immunize enough people that no sustained chains of transmission are possible. This would protect us from some of the worst blights, like diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, pertussis (whooping cough), and meningococcal disease.
The trouble is, Ontario’s proposed education sessions will likely fall on deaf ears. Many anti-vaxxers actually know how vaccines work, and they know the arguments in favor of vaccinations. But they remain resistant to modern medicine. The reason, says Durham University anthropologist Thom Scott-Phillips, is that many anti-vaxxers are drawn to what psychologists call “naïve” or “folk” theories.
“Naïve theories of all kinds tend to persist even in the face of contradictory arguments and evidence,” writes Scott-Phillips. “Interestingly, they persist even in the minds of those who, at a more reflexive level of understanding, know them to be false.”
These memes, he says, are particularly “sticky” and hard to shake off. Exposing anti-vaxxers to the science is a great start, but it’s surely going to require a larger cultural shift to change things in a meaningful way.