To Vaccinate or Not

To Vaccinate or Not

With confirmed cases of measles in Michigan’s Oakland County earlier this year, and passage in 2014 of the state’s vaccine waiver law, vaccines will be an important local issue for the foreseeable future.

U-M SPH Associate Professor Brian Zikmund-Fisher, whose research focuses on risk communication, has been studying parental perceptions of vaccines for years. Back in 2011, a post about vaccine communications for the U-M Risk Science Center blog led to an invitation for Zikmund-Fisher to serve as an expert for an Australian documentary on vaccines titled JABBED, which was subsequently turned into an episode of the PBS television series NOVA. The episode, “Vaccines: Calling the Shots,” aired last September. Zikmund-Fisher talked to SPH student Peggy Korpela about the experience:

What motivated you to contribute to the film?

Vaccines are perhaps the single largest public health risk communication. Yet, talking about vaccines is different today than it was in 1965. Sixty years ago, public health didn’t have to sell the value of vaccines because people regularly experienced the threat of measles, polio, and pertussis. Epidemics weren’t temporary crises—they were permanent parts of everyday life. Today, most parents lack first-hand experience with communicable diseases. That’s what makes communicating about vaccines so hard, yet so important.

In the NOVA episode, several mothers express uncertainty about vaccinating their children. How did the episode try to speak to such parents?

Public health tends to dismiss concerns about vaccines by reiterating that vaccines are “safe,” but such messages fail to acknowledge parents’ feelings. The NOVA episode acknowledged that risks involved with vaccines exist but are rare at a population level, while reminding viewers that individual parents may reasonably worry whether their child “is that one in a million.” The episode tried to convey empathy for such fears while using images of Michigan Stadium to show concretely just how small one in a million is.

More importantly, the episode presented personal stories of measles, polio, and pertussis—stories that reminded viewers why we vaccinate, despite the rare risks. For example, while measles is not (yet) a regular occurrence here in the U.S., that’s not the case elsewhere. Someone with measles can be in Russia or France one day and behind us in line at Starbucks the next day. So protecting ourselves and our communities via vaccination remains essential.