Pro-vaccine messages can backfire, study finds

Current strategies implemented to debunk misconceptions regarding the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine in public health campaigns can unintentionally bolster unfounded misconceptions regarding the vaccine, according to a study published in PLOS One.

To assess the efficacy of strategies to address vaccine myths, researchers surveyed 134 individuals in Scotland and Italy via a two-part questionnaire assessing their perceptions of vaccines. Participants took the first half of the questionnaire before separating into four groups.

Researchers gave three groups different educational materials on vaccination. One group received a vaccine sheet with vaccine myths corrected by facts. A second group received information comparing the MMR vaccine's potential side effects to problems caused by the measles, mumps and rubella. Researchers gave the third group pictures of unvaccinated children suffering from the respective viruses. The final group received an unrelated fact sheet on medical errors.

After the interventions, 120 participants retook the survey. Every intervention proved counter-productive with reported belief in vaccine myths strengthened and the likelihood of vaccinating children lessened.

"Our pattern of results thus confirms that there should be more testing of public health campaign messages," wrote the study's authors. "This is especially true because corrective strategies may appear effective immediately yet backfire even after a short delay, when the message they tried to convey gradually fades from memory, allowing common misconceptions to be more easily remembered and identified as true."

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