Measles Vaccine: Images of Sick Kids May Convince Skeptics

A young boy receives a vaccination from his doctor.
(Image credit: Oksana Kuzmina/

The best ways to convince people of the benefits of vaccinations may be to show them pictures of a child with measles or to have them read a description of the disease written by a mom whose child was infected, according to a new study.

These ways are more effective than showing people information summarizing recent research that shows there is no link between vaccines and an increased risk of autism in children, the researchers found.

The researchers found that directing people's attention to the risks posed by not getting vaccinated by showing them the pictures of sick children and having them read a mom's written account of her child's disease changed their attitudes, leading them to think more positively about vaccinations, study author Zachary Horne, a graduate student at the University of Illinois, said in a statement.

That was true for even "the most skeptical participants in the study," Horne said.

Vaccine beliefs

There were 644 cases of measles in the United States in 2014, according to the study. That's triple the number seen in 2013. And back in 2000, researchers thought that this disease had been eliminated from the U.S., according to the study. [5 Dangerous Vaccine Myths]

"The re-emergence of measles has been linked to an increase in the number of parents refusing to vaccinate their children," the researchers wrote in their study. One reason that parents don't vaccinate their children is the mistaken belief that the vaccine that protects against measles, mumps and rubella (the MMR vaccine) is linked with an increased risk of autism. Researchers have been looking for effective ways to convince people who hold this mistaken belief about the benefits of vaccinations.

In the new study, the researchers asked 315 people questions to examine their views on several potentially controversial subjects, including their attitudes toward vaccines and their willingness to vaccinate their kids.

Then, the people in the study were assigned to one of three groups. People in the first group looked at science-based materials that challenged the anti-vaccination point of view. People in the second group read a paragraph written by a mother describing her child's infection with measles, and also looked at pictures of children with measles, mumps or rubella. They also read three warnings about why it is important to vaccinate kids. People in the third group, which was a comparison group, were asked to read about a subject not related to vaccines.

Then, the researchers again evaluated the people's views on vaccination and their intentions to vaccinate their children in the future. The investigators found that the intervention that involved showing people the consequences of the diseases was the one that had the biggest effect on the people who were initially the most skeptical about vaccinations, Horne said.

A better approach

In contrast, showing people the scientific evidence that there is no link between vaccines and autism did not change the people's views on vaccination, the researchers said. The reason this type of intervention doesn't work is likely that trying to convince someone that his or her beliefs are false is not the best argumentative strategy, Horne said.

The study shows that "instead of going up against the belief about the link between vaccines and autism," researchers should aim to convince people that, independent of whether they believe in that link, they should also believe that there are serious consequences of not getting children vaccinated, Horne told Live Science.

"The insight [from the study] was to direct their attention towards those consequences, rather than trying to combat their false beliefs that there is some link where there is not," Horne said.

The new study was published Aug. 3, 2015 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Follow Agata Blaszczak-Boxe on Twitter. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Staff Writer