A new study in Pediatrics suggests the U.S. government has failed to convince parents of the safety of the childhood vaccine given for measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) — with many suspecting a connection to autism.

The anti-vaccination movement continues to thwart public safety messages by promulgating discredited findings from a single academic paper The British Journal of Medicine soon retracted after its 1998 publication. In the United States and Western Europe, resistance against MMR and other childhood vaccines has brought outbreaks of infectious diseases once thought exceedingly rare.

Last month, California health officials had confirmed 15 cases of measles in the state, with several in the San Francisco Bay area.

James Watt, chief of the state’s communicable disease control division, told CBS the disease is still a threat to public health. “People may not realize but measles is quite a common and serious disease that can cause serious complications, so I really encourage people to talk to their doctors about the benefits of vaccination,” he said. “It’s not just a personal decision, but a choice not to vaccinate also increases the risk of disease transmission to other people.”

Even worse, parents suspicious of the vaccine became even less likely to vaccinate their kids after listening to the government’s spiel, according to researchers at Dartmouth College.

“The first message of our study is that the messaging we use to promote childhood vaccines may not be effective, and in some cases counterproductive,” researcher Brendan Nyhan, said in a statement. “We need more evidence-based messaging about vaccines.”

In the study, Nyhan and his colleagues surveyed 1,759 parents about childhood inoculations including the MMR vaccine. Parents were presented with one of four messages, including testimony from public health officials concerning safety as well as more information about the disease threats and photographs of children sickened by measles, mumps, or rubella. One message included a story about a baby who almost died of measles.

Still, the messages not only served to harden the opinions of vaccine doubters. After listening to the government’s message, suspicious parents reported they were only 45 percent likely to vaccinate their children, after walking into the study with a 70 percent likelihood.

“We don’t know what works, and we need to learn more, rather than relying on hunches or intuition,” Nyhan said. Current public health communications about vaccines may not be effective. For some parents, they may actually increase misperceptions or reduce vaccination intention.”

First, the government must do no harm.

 

Source: Nyhan B, Reifler J, Richey S, Freed GL. Effective Messages In Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial. Pediatrics. 2014.