Mind Matters — Measles and Madam Secretary

The TV series Madam Secretary tackled the topic of vaccinations recently. In this episode, a young child, whose parents had not gotten her vaccinated, contracted measles and as a result suffered cognitive impairment.

As a child, I remember being very ill with the measles. I also remember being ecstatic to join all the children lined up at the firehouse a few years later to receive the polio vaccine. My godmother contracted polio as a child, as did her brother. I saw the evidence that polio was literally a crippling disease.

My mother also told me stories of how many infants and children died in our town before I was born—from diseases such as diphtheria, whooping cough, and pneumonia. Does it take coming face to face with experiencing the tragic consequences of disease to come to terms with one’s vaccine phobia? Hopefully not.

As the saying goes, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on.” In 1998, an article was published by the Lancet. Its author, Andrew Wakefield, claimed that autism was linked to vaccinations. The claim was basically a hoax and entirely discredited, yet the lie lives on. No link was ever found between vaccine and autism; and, in fact, recent research shows that autism develops in utero.

Another myth ripe for debunking is that vaccines in the US aren’t needed because infections here are low. True, “herd immunity” is protective so long as most of us are immunized and thereby protect those who aren’t. This is important because some of us who can’t be vaccinated—those with compromised immune systems, newborns, the elderly, pregnant women, for example. However, “herd immunity” is what it sounds like—you need a lot of the herd to be vaccinated. Without most of us being immunized, there is no herd effect. Also, do you like to travel abroad? It may be in some other country where your immunization will be needed. I remember getting the smallpox vaccine as a child, then getting a booster shot for it when I first traveled to Europe in the 1960’s. Guess what, no one gets those vaccines anymore! Why? Because vaccines have eradicated that disease.

If you are a vaccine skeptic, there is nothing you have read thus far that has changed your mind. Here’s why.

It’s been found that when we develop certain attitudes, no amount of “corrective information” will have any effect. When experts give explanations, it is often assumed that evidence drives attitudes. It doesn’t, say psychologist researchers. Instead, people “search for evidence to support their attitudes. … evidence is sampled and critiqued selectively in order to reinforce what one wants to believe. Circumstantial or hearsay evidence is embraced to the extent that it reinforces the conclusion that one is motivated to reach.” In this way, scholarly or scientific evidence that is “inconvenient or inconsistent” with a person’s attitude is dismissed as irrelevant.

Psychologists Matthew Hornsey, Emily Harris, and Kelly Fielding studied “attitude roots.” Instead of looking at surface concerns or beliefs that people hold, these researchers wanted to dig deeper to find the roots that help power and stabilize these beliefs. They describe four attitude roots: “conspiratorial beliefs, disgust sensitivity, reactance, and individualistic/hierarchical world views.”

One of the conspiracy beliefs that drives anti-vaccination websites, say researchers, is the idea that vested interests inflate the benefits of vaccines and don’t report the dangers. This conspiracy belief can be joined with others to build a world view where “shadowy networks of people with malevolent intentions … execute mass hoaxes on the public.”

The root attitude of disgust can be derived from phobias and fears, such as negative reactions to needles, blood, or hospitals. Such fears can support attitudes that would avoid triggers of disgust, that is, shun vaccinations, as well as the science that supports their efficacy.

The attitude root, reactance, is about people’s desire to be non-conforming, rugged individuals. The consensus, community agreement that immunization is good becomes unacceptable.

The researchers also surveyed people on types of world views. It appeared that acceptance of a hierarchical society vs an egalitarian society correlated with an individualist world view, while those who espoused equality expressed community. Anti-science beliefs could be hypothesized in either camp for different reasons. When the hierarchical/individualist fears “big government,” the egalitarians don’t trust big business (e.g., Big Pharma).

TV’s Madam Secretary may be fiction, but its episode on vaccination and an outbreak of measles was filled with facts.