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Timothy Caulfield

January 3, 2018 by Speakers' Spotlight

How to Talk to Anti-Vaxxers

Professor Timothy Caulfield is an unrivaled communicator who debunks myths and assumptions about innovation in the health sector—from research on stem cells to diets to alternative medicine—for the benefit of the public and decision-makers. He is a Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy, and a Professor in the Faculty of Law and the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta. He has been the Research Director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta since 1993.

His most recent book, The Vaccination Picture, takes on myths around the uptick in anti-vaxxers. Chatelaine interviewed him on the subject and here are some highlights:

Who is most vulnerable to these myths?
There seems to be a portrait of people who are vaccination-hesitant. They’re more likely to use complementary and alternative medicine, follow their intuition, and be suspicious of government. Then there are all these studies that show your classic conspiracy-theory believers. The unfortunate thing is that once a conspiracy theory is out there, whether it’s about vaccination or John F. Kennedy, it’s very hard to get rid of it.

Then there are individuals who are very vocal against vaccinations, Jenny McCarthy being one of them, where that causal illusion is part of the reason they have such a strong view. Their child gets a vaccination and then starts to show some characteristics of autism, and the parents see a causal connection — which is really an illusion. It’s a very powerful force; human beings are hard-wired to see connections that are not necessarily there.

How can people be persuaded that the link between vaccinations and autism is false?
It’s important to listen to people — why are they vaccination-hesitant? Not everyone is worried about autism; some are worried about vaccination overload, or perhaps they’ve had a bad experience, or they may have suspicions about Big Pharma. We have to listen to their concerns. There’s interesting research around narrative – the personal experiences that people have. There’s a lot of research that suggests “story” is very powerful, that it can overwhelm all the data in the world. [In his new book, Caulfield writes that one powerful anecdote can sway public perception of vaccines, even if there is an abundance of science demonstrating its safety.] I think we need to leverage that fact. Use engaging communications strategies to get science across. We shouldn’t fight fire with fire; we should fight fire with science-informed fire. Studies show that throwing facts at people doesn’t change their minds; you need to also provide the story about why [the science] is important. We have to continuously set the record straight.

In your new book, you write about the fact that France has the worst vaccination rates. How does Canada compare?
Canada is pretty good, but we have pockets where the vaccination rate is unacceptably low. We had the potential for a measles outbreak this year [a disease that was eliminated in Canada in 1998]. We can’t be complacent. The good news is that most Canadians support vaccination. But you still see really low uptake of the flu vaccine and people are suspicious of the HPV vaccine. We still have a lot of work to do. People should remember that getting vaccines is an altruistic act. It’s not just for you, it’s for your community. It’s especially true for the flu vaccine.

Read the whole Q&A here.