How to persuade the anti-vaxxers to vaccinate

Parents speak out: Why we don't vaccinate our children
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Story highlights

  • Just telling parents to vaccinate might not sway them, doctors say
  • Removing exemptions to vaccinations for school kids might be needed, an educator said
  • Experts: Sadly, it may take more people getting diseases to persuade the anti-vaxxers

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN)There's been much discussion over the past few weeks about the so-called anti-vaxxers, parents who have chosen for a variety of reasons not to vaccinate their children.

From the commander in chief and public health leaders to medical experts and other parents, the message has been as clear as you can get: "Vaccinate your children."
    And yet, just telling parents they should vaccinate and why they should vaccinate is unlikely to do the trick, said a number of doctors I interviewed.
    "The problem is not as simple as just saying let's educate people because I think a lot of these parents have seen the data, have seen the science, and yet they still don't want to vaccinate," said Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious diseases and public health specialist.
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    Surgeon General: Vaccine exemptions too permissive
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    Gounder said some people just don't believe they could be at risk.
    "There's this idea, we're healthy, we've always been healthy, we're a healthy family, so that the idea you would be at risk for a disease ... they're kind of resistant to that."
    Most anti-vaxxers aren't necessarily anti-vaccine, said Dr. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. They share "more of a vaccine-hesitant sentiment, which is not surprising," he said.
    Children are expected to get more than 20 inoculations during their first few years of life with as many as five shots at one time to "prevent disease that most people don't see, using biological fluids most people don't understand," said Offit, who is also professor of pediatrics in the division of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
    "Some of those people are looking for a reason not to vaccinate and the Internet and some celebrities and now politicians are perfectly willing to provide them that information that says, 'OK, good, it's OK not to vaccinate because vaccines really aren't as safe as they're claimed to be.' "
    So what can be done to persuade them to vaccinate their kids?
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    Lori Day, an educational psychologist with over 25 years experience in the school system, thinks ultimately the only way to get people to vaccinate might be to force the issue. That would be by removing the personal and religious exemptions that allow parents not to vaccinate and still send their children to public and private schools.
    In 48 states and the District of Columbia, parents can request religious exemptions from vaccines, and 20 states allow philosophical exemptions, according to The National Conference of State Legislatures.
    Two states, Mississippi and West Virginia, limit vaccine exemptions to children who can't be vaccinated for medical reasons, such as having compromised immune systems. Everyone else needs to have their vaccinations, or they can't attend school.
    "We legislate that children have to ride in car seats and wear seat belts, that's for their own safety, and so there are all kinds of things that we do legislate about safety," said Day, who is also the author of a book on mother-daughter book clubs called "Her Next Chapter."
    "I think that it's going to take rules, like what they have for other safety issues."
    How did the anti-vaccination movement begin?
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    Changing the way we talk about the issue online and in real life, injecting more understanding into the discussions, could also help, Day said.
    "The shaming and the anger and the 'you're dumb' kind of stuff that people are doing isn't working," she said. "I think it is making people dig in more and it seems to me what has to happen is a different type of dialogue that is a little bit more empathetic and more listening and more saying, 'I understand how you feel and that this is scary.' "
    Tara Smith, associate professor of epidemiology at Kent State University, said psychological studies have shown that when medical professionals tell people what they should do and pull out the science to back up their opinions, that doesn't necessarily move people who are skeptical about vaccines and in some cases makes them more firmly anti-vaccine.
    "So that's kind of our conundrum right now is how to best display and describe the science that's out there without making people dig in even further to their anti-vaccine views," said Smith, who also leads an emerging infections laboratory at Kent State.
    As we've reported previously, medical experts say talking "parent to parent" definitely helps, with doctors who are parents expressing that they understand how other parents want to protect their children more than anything else, and then sharing why they believe vaccinating their kids is the best way to keep them safe.
    "I sort of hate these false dichomoties of ... 'I'll go with the parent instead of the public health professional,' " said Offit of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
    "Public health professionals are parents, doctors are parents, pharmaceutical company workers are parents, so I think you have to establish the fact that you all are on the same side."
    But what might move the needle more than anything else is when more and more people get diseases such as measles and when we see what those diseases can do.
    "We in public health, we talk a lot about how public health is often invisible. You don't think about what it does until you see an outbreak of disease," said Smith.
    "So I think it's those breakthrough disease outbreaks like we're seeing now that do bring parents back to realizing 1 in 1,000 kids with measles could die and several get measles encephalitis and pneumonia so they realize ... just how deadly and how serious it can be."
    What is the best way to persuade people to vaccinate their children? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter or CNN Living on Facebook.