Misrepresenting the Debate: Measles’s Other Problem

Kids line up for vaccines in the 1940s. Courtesy of Library of Congress and The New York Times
Kids line up for vaccines in the 1940s. Courtesy of Library of Congress and The New York Times

I found myself rolling my eyes every time a news anchor looks solemnly into the camera and reports on another minuscule facet of the measles debate. I thought news agencies were whipping up a fervor that just didn’t exist in the general populous. But then I began to grow concerned… what if I was wrong? As an Emergency Manager (EM), it’s my job to deeply understand my constituents. Whether people live, die, or lose everything depends on my ability to make my warnings intelligible, acceptable, and actionable. Besides, I should probably stay sharp on current events, no?

Unfortunately, at the top of Google searches are lots of bloggers and pundits blaming elitist liberals or recalcitrant conservatives. I’m not interested in the vitriol associated with blaming this group or that group. While I disagree with anti-vaccine arguments, I want to know who they are and why they are. Is it true that they are a large group, especially given that the scientific and political communities seem to agree vaccines are necessary?

Fortunately Dan Kahan, the Elizabeth K. Dollard Professor of Law and professor of psychology at Yale Law School, was as curious as I was. He surveyed 2,316 U.S. adults in order to assess public perceptions and attitudes about vaccines. As Time reports, those opposed to vaccines are generally random.

There was a modest minority of respondents who held a negative orientation toward vaccines. These respondents, however, could not be characterized as belonging to any recognizable subgroup identified by demographic characteristics, religiosity, science comprehension, or political or cultural outlooks. Indeed, groups bitterly divided over other science issues, including climate change and human evolution, all saw vaccine risks as low and vaccine benefits as high. Even within those groups, in other words, individuals hostile to childhood vaccinations are outliers.

Indeed, “There is deep and widespread public consensus, even among groups strongly divided on other issues such as climate change and evolution, that childhood vaccinations make an essential contribution to public health,” says Kahan.

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Pew Research Results

In fact, it seems like the greater debate is about whether the government should mandate vaccines or whether it should be up to parents. Pew Research Center reports that the majority of older Americans tend to believe vaccinations should be mandated while 41% of Millennials (18-29 y/o) think parents should decide. (See graph.)

So what?

Who cares what anti-vaxxer demographics look like? The important thing is that they’re wrong, right? Well, not exactly. It turns out accuracy about public perception is incredibly important for one simple reason: self-fulfilling prophecies. When public educators like the CDC, politicians, doctors, scientists, and Emergency Managers believe that there is resistance to their message, they will act in such a way that actually arouses the resistance they feared. Kahan states in the abstract of his research paper: “…that ad hoc [off the cuff without consideration for broader context] forms of risk communication that assert there is mounting resistance to childhood immunizations themselves pose a risk of creating misimpressions and arousing sensibilities that could culturally polarize the public and diminish motivation to cooperate with universal vaccination programs.” In other words, when people believe there are two fighting sides, they will pick one to join. So when news agencies give voice to an outlier minority, they are in fact stirring up damaging controversy and making mine and the CDC’s job harder.

But we have to be fair, don’t we?

No. We have to be accurate. Misrepresenting the strength and validity of an opposing argument is not fair. Kahan urges those working in public health to (1). use empirical data to assess public opinion; (2) discourage risk communication (public health messages) which are based on anecdotal evidence or gut reactions as to the broader context; (3) “publicize the persistently high rates of childhood vaccination” in conjunction with “…[the] high levels of public support for universal immunization in the U.S”; and (4) correct communications which misrepresent U.S. vaccination coverage and its relationship to the incidence of childhood diseases.

#3 is especially important because when people hear that most people are vaccinating their children, they tend to be more willing to vaccinate their own children (advertisers use this principle all the time). I think as public health educators, we’re worried that when people hear that most everyone is vaccinating their children they’ll think it isn’t as important to vaccinate their own children.

Looks like we need some data to back that up. In the mean time, let’s stick to what we know for sure.

Further reading:

  • CDC says Measles is so infectious that if one person has it, 90% of the unprotected people around him/her will catch it. Furthermore, if it doesn’t kill you, you could be permanently brain damaged, blind, or deaf.
  • PBS says there’s no cure once you catch Measles. Only prevention. If you do catch Measles, all doctors can do is treat symptoms and hope your body is strong enough to resist.
  • Concerning “eradication” and “herd immunity” : CDC FAQ page
  • NPR reports on psychological considerations RE: why parents won’t vaccinate
  • NY Times “Fear of Vaccines Goes Viral” article
  • Time Magazine: vaccines are non-partisan
  • Harris Poll on what people believe about vaccines
  • Pew Research Poll on what people believe about vaccines

The Zombie Apocalypse: Why Emergency Managers are Awesome

A while ago, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) wrote a tongue-in-cheek zombie apocalypse plan. Partly as a PR stunt and partly because if you’re ready for a walking dead epidemic, then you’re just about ready for anything. Since then, it has taken off as a very successful awareness campaign. Cities across the nation are participating in zombie preparedness drills in order to train responders and zombie apocalypse kits are ready to buy (although you might as well use this free list and just make your own. It’s cheaper.) Emergency Managers all over the nation are thrilled. It’s hard to get people interested in preparedness; FEMA estimates that 1/3 of the population don’t even have preparedness “on their radar”. But lately, zombies have captured America’s imagination (Thank you, “Walking Dead“) And getting prepared for a zombie apocalypse usually gets you prepared for the next earthquake, hurricane, or tornado.

This Emergency Manager is all about zombies this Halloween.

If you're ready for a zombie apocalypse, then you're ready for any emergency. emergency.cdc.gov
(click the widget you adventurous spirit, you)

Basic Minimum Requirements to Survive Zombies:

Straight from the good folks at the CDC…

  • Water (1 gallon per person per day)
  • Food (stock up on non-perishable items that you eat regularly)
  • Medications (this includes prescription and non-prescription meds)
  • Tools and Supplies (utility knife, duct tape, battery powered radio, etc.)
  • Sanitation and Hygiene (household bleach, soap, towels, etc.)
  • Clothing and Bedding (a change of clothes for each family member and blankets)
  • Important documents (copies of your driver’s license, passport, and birth certificate to name a few)
  • First Aid supplies (although you’re a goner if a zombie bites you, you can use these supplies to treat basic cuts and lacerations that you might get during a tornado orhurricane)
  • And More

Want to know more?

* Here’s a Forbes article with a report from USC Anneberg School of Communication and Journalism

* Here’s a CNN article with lots of quotes from happy people

* the CDC speaks for itself: tons of helpful tips in here. Read this if nothing else.


Solve the Outbreak for Ipad

* 5 Apps for the Zombie Apocalypse –including maps, flashlights, guidebooks…

* Apocalypse Survival Guide— because there’s more than one way the world can go up in flames.

What about you, Reader? Are you prepared? Tell us how below.

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