Reasons For the Anti-Vaccine Movement's Appeal

01/19/2011 11:02 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Recently, the fraudulent work of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who with his followers feverishly propounded a notion that childhood vaccines cause autism, fell further down the credibility ladder upon a detailed report published in the British Medical Journal. It turns out that cases reported in the original, retracted and long-ago renounced by his co-authors Lancet paper, were misrepresented from the start. To further clarify the subject, a review in the current New England Journal of Medicine details the history of the erroneous anti-vaccine movement.

The crusade against vaccines for once common illnesses like whooping cough, measles and polio has caused needless illness and deaths in children worldwide. Still, the debate may creep in on websites (such as this) and elsewhere. For doctors, patients and parents to understand to make sensible, volitional decisions, requires insight about why the movement attracted so many followers.

There are a few lessons in this story about communication in medicine and news:

1. People aren't always rational in their choices. If more doctors would acknowledge their patients' fear, rather than simply discounting their concerns as illegitimate, they might be more be more persuasive.

2. Misinformation spreads easily when people are under-educated. Journalists' and even some doctors' limited knowledge of basic science and statistics render us vulnerable to speculation and hype.

3. Sometimes even educated people are so desperate for an explanation, or for a solution to a medical problem, that they'll believe a smooth-talking scientist or doctor because they want to believe what he's saying is true. If vaccines were to cause autism, that would give people a sense of control, i.e. a way to avoid autism.

The truth is that, for the most part, we don't know why many diseases occur in some people and not in others. Not understanding is a frustrating and unsatisfying circumstance because it makes us feel powerless. We grasp at straws, when instead we should invest in research and better education.