SEATTLE -- As measles outbreaks in the U.S. continue to grow, new research from Washington State University finds that scare tactics aimed at vaccine skeptics may actually make the problem worse, not better.
Emotional appeals about the health risks of skipping shots and heart-tugging photos of unvaccinated kids sick with measles or whooping cough appear to backfire among those most suspicious of medical experts.
That's according to a forthcoming study by Graham Dixon, an associate professor with the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at WSU. He conducted two online surveys that included more than 800 participants who were asked to read messages about vaccination that included a photo of a small child sick in a hospital bed.
When the child's illness was attributed to an infection that could be prevented by vaccines, those with anti-vaccine views were not emotionally affected by the photo _ and they saw fewer risks in avoiding vaccines.
"It really has no effect and, in fact, boomerangs with people who are skeptical about modern medicine," said Dixon, whose work is set to be published in the journal Communication Research.
That's a problem for public health officials and others hoping to quell anti-vaccine views. Since Jan. 1, at least 170 cases of measles have been reported in the U.S., with most tied to an outbreak that started at the Disneyland theme park in Southern California, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Seven cases have been reported in Washington state. The spread of the disease has been blamed on pockets of vaccine-wary parents who choose not to inoculate their children.
In response, officials such as those at the CDC have launched campaigns that focus on the negative health consequences of avoiding vaccination. But such efforts aren't likely to be effective, said Michael Belkin, a Bainbridge Island skeptic and activist who blamed his young daughter's death 17 years ago on a reaction to a common childhood vaccine.
"If doctors want people to accept vaccines, they need to be honest about vaccine risks," he wrote in an email. "For instance, the MMR vaccine package insert under adverse reactions lists encephalitis, Guillain-Barre syndrome and convulsions or seizures. Anyone who reads that package insert realizes that child in a hospital bed might be a vaccine-injured kid as well as a kid who has a vaccine-preventable disease."
Doctors who omit that information are perceived as biased, he said.
Health officials, however, say that the public health benefits of vaccination far outweigh the small risks of harm caused by vaccine reactions.
The WSU study is only the latest to find that pro-vaccine messages can backfire. Researchers at Dartmouth University found similar results in a study published in the journal Pediatrics in 2014.
Instead of focusing on emotional appeals, health officials should address the underlying concerns of skeptics, Dixon said.
"There needs to be a concerted effort to improve doctor/patient relationships and increase people's trust in modern medicine," he said. "That can have a wider impact than just sending out emotional messages."