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Winning the Vaccine War

Focus on Community-Based Strategies and Avoid Denigrating Parents

Matthew Nisbet is associate professor of communication at Northeastern University and a Committee for Skeptical Inquiry scientific consultant. From 1997 to 1999, he was public relations director for CSI.

Since the 1960s, high rates of childhood vaccination in the United States have led to dramatic declines in cases of polio; measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR); chicken pox; and other diseases. The benefits to society have been overwhelming. Over the past two decades alone, vaccines have prevented an estimated 322 million disease cases, 730,000 early deaths, and $1.4 trillion in related costs (Whitney et al. 2014).

Government-led vaccination programs have been so effective that many Americans aged forty-five and younger have little to no comprehension of the lethal threats that these diseases once posed, contributing to their doubts about vaccine safety and their opposition to government mandates. In a 2015 national survey, 41 percent of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds and 35 percent of thirty- to forty-nineyear-olds said that parents should be able to decide whether to vaccinate their children. In comparison, only 23 percent of fifty- to sixty-four-year-olds and 20 percent of those sixty-five and older said the same. These differences are likely partially explained by the comparatively greater proportion of younger Americans who believe that vaccines are unsafe (Pew Research Center 2015).

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