Vaccinations have all but eradicated childhood diseases that two generations ago killed and maimed millions. Yet today scientists and physicians struggle to sell their benefits due to the powerful influence of celebrity ‘experts’ preying on the insecurities and naivety of parents. Christine Schulte examines this difficult communication challenge. 

In the mid-1950s, many children in the US would become pioneers when their parents signed them up to participate in Jonas Salk’s clinical trial for a passive polio vaccination. Despite being slightly scared of any potential side effects and the overall outcome of the trial, at that time parents worldwide would have done anything to get rid of the feared disease. The vaccination turned out to be very successful and the number of new polio infections worldwide was reduced by 99.9 percent last year to a total of only 291 cases.

Deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs) became very rare in the developed world and numbers began to sharply decline globally. 

As a result, most of these diseases have now become a shadow of the past with many people only having a vague idea of what it really means to catch the 100-day-cough or how intense the battle against its long term effects can be. Not many still know about the serious risks of a measles-infection because they experienced it first-hand or saw it spread among friends and family-members. 

And yet, in 2015, the World Health Organization reported that VPDs experienced a huge comeback in the USA, the UK and Australia. Numbers began to rise slowly in 2010 and hit a peak in 2012, when Australia saw the largest measles outbreak since the 1980s and in 2014, when America experienced the worst pertussis epidemic in 70 years. So what has happened now to threaten the safety gained by mass-vaccinations?

Scientists can recommend courses of action on the basis of the best available evidence, but it has to be clear that there is always an element of risk involved.

Yes, vaccinations can have side effects and yes, in rare cases these side effects can be very dangerous for the affected child, even though the likelihood of this happening is extremely small. However, especially in regard to childhood vaccination, the idea of a relative risk can dominate thinking, making parents avoid vaccination altogether. This fear feeds on misinformation and false, unscientific claims that seemingly support paternal instincts, even if those instincts might be based on misconceptions all along. After all, it would be so much more convenient if the laws of physics lined up with people’s naïve beliefs. Peter Doherty, Nobel Medicine Prize winner and acclaimed immunologist, describes this phenomenon as “knowledge wars” and asks people, even if it might be uncomfortable, to challenge their assumptions and take an evidence-based view of the world. Science, he said once, demands to reduce the filters, the horse blinkers of dogma, beliefs and prejudices.

Researchers, however, have found that people in general do not just go ahead and believe in science – they often have to unlearn trusting their intuition first: shedding false beliefs takes active work. A single, unreliable report with invalid results can destroy a large part of the information and communications work done over the last few decades. 

If celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, Oprah Winfrey, Charlie Sheen or presidential candidate Donald Trump step up and actively promote anti-vaccination, scared and sceptical members of our society will believe what they think and do is right. 

People look to celebrities for comments on anything that matters to them, as if they have some insight all others lack. Celebrities can make a positive difference to the issue they are promoting, acting as opinion leaders for a large audience.  They serve, for many, as the arbiters of taste, morality, and public opinion. 

A prominent face can give a societal movement a strong boost, even if it might be for a doubtful cause such as anti-vaccination. And while this group of people might not be very large, even a few can significantly influence a nation’s overall well-being should they decide against vaccinating their children.

As a result, the responsible authorities and institutions should not stop reaching out to their communities. There is no easy solution to the problem, however, most important is to continue public education and strengthen communication efforts while also addressing parental concerns and discussing the risks of non-vaccination.