When it comes to communicating the importance of vaccinations, it turns out a picture is worth a thousand words.

Researchers have found that when convincing vaccination skeptics that vaccines can be a good thing, a combination of pictures of children with diseases along with anecdotes and scientific information is the most persuasive. 

Researchers reported their findings in a new study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Researchers Set up Three Groups

A group of researchers from the University of Illinois and the University of California, Los Angeles tested 315 study participants’ views about a number of subjects, including attitudes towards vaccines and willingness to vaccinate children. 

The study participants were then randomly assigned to three groups. One group looked at materials challenging anti-vaccination points of view. 

The second group focused on the risks associated with measles, mumps, and rubella by reading a mother’s account of measles, looking at pictures of a child with mumps and an infant with rubella, and reading short warnings about the importance of immunizing children. 

The third was a control group that read about something that didn’t have to do with vaccines.

The second group, the one that focused on the risks, saw a greater change in attitudes about vaccination, especially among the most skeptical in the group or those that were strongly against vaccines.

“One surprising aspect of our findings is that our intervention was actually most effective for the people who were initially most skeptical toward vaccines. This was also very encouraging, as these are the people who we would most like to persuade,” said co-lead study author Derek Powell, a Ph.D. student in cognitive psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The National Vaccine Information Center did not return a request for comment.

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The Importance of Vaccines

The anti-vaccination movement gained steam in 1998, when a study about 12 children published in The Lancetstated there was a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine to autism onset.

The study was refuted and ultimately retracted, but the idea that vaccines were dangerous garnered a tremendous amount of public attention.

Measles, mumps, and rubella have largely been eliminated in the United States because of childhood vaccines, but sometimes outbreaks occur — especially among those who have not been vaccinated.

During the past year, were reported to have measles. The majority of the outbreak was linked to an infected traveler who visited Disneyland in California. In 2014, 383 people were infected in the Midwest, largely because the group was made up of unvaccinated Amish.

The reason for vaccination is that measles can cause serious health complications such as pneumonia and even death, according to the .

Before the measles vaccine program began in 1963, between 3 and 4 million Americans got measles each year. The vaccine has reduced measles by more than 99 percent.

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Bringing Photos Into the Picture

An earlier study tried looking at different ways to change people’s view of vaccination safety by sharing science-based information, to little success. This time around, researchers tried a different approach.

“We felt that direct education would be the most effective, and honest, way to persuade people to have positive attitudes toward vaccines,” Powell told Healthline. 

By showing study participants pictures of the disease and sharing a mother’s account of the risk associated with measles, mumps, and rubella, the researchers said they have found a more effective way of persuading vaccination skeptics. 

“We found success using a combination of images and scientific information,” Powell said. Using images is particularly important in regions where these diseases are no longer common, researchers found. 

“Some people might not appreciate how dangerous diseases like measles can be because [the diseases] are not something that many people have experienced firsthand,” Powell said. “In cases like this, pictures might be an especially helpful aid to scientific education.”

Stressing the Positive

Positivity was key in the study. 

“Rather than confront people’s fears over the safety of vaccines directly, we emphasized the positive benefits of vaccines. The fact that they prevent dangerous diseases,” Powell said. “This doesn’t seem to evoke the same defensiveness that directly challenging people sometimes does.” 

Researchers hope these findings can help medical personnel and schools better work with anti-vaccination parents. 

“We hope our findings inform how doctors interact with vaccine-hesitant parents or patients, and inform how members of the media and public officials talk about these issues,” Powell said. “Focusing on the dangers of preventable diseases and the positive benefits of vaccines seems to be the most effective way to persuade people to get vaccinated.”

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