Updated
October 28th, 2019

Quick Tips When Speaking With Anti-Vaxxers

Australian researchers show how responding to anti-vaxxers depends on each situation

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What do you do when you’re faced with someone who questions vaccines? Do you ignore them? Or might something else work?

Responding to people who question the benefits vaccines deliver can be hard. So be judicious about where you spend your energy.

If you’re a vaccination supporter, you may feel perplexed, even angry, when people don’t vaccinate their children.

A team of Australian researchers, clinicians, and the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS), shows the best way to respond to anti-vaxxers depends on the situation. 

Your approach will be very different from a person who has fixed negative views on vaccination, compared with someone who is cautious. How you respond also depends on what is most important in your relationship.

Here are some options from these researchers:

Don’t go there

  • This approach is handy if you encounter a person with fixed beliefs. They may say, “I’ve done my research.” Your automatic response may be to counter their claims, saying “The science is clear. Vaccinate your kids.”
  • But if the relationship with this person isn’t important to you, or their emphatic pronouncements are unlikely to do harm, then little is gained by engaging. People with fixed beliefs don’t budge much.
  • You may encounter active opposition to vaccination on social media. A small number of anti-vaccination activists colonize online forums.
  • So avoid protracted conversations.
  • But countering anti-vaxxer views can also bring benefits: it can diminish these negative effects, and affirm vaccination for hesitant onlookers or “fence-sitters”.
  • So which option is best? Just keep any interactions brief, factual and polite. Otherwise, don’t go there.

Agree to disagree

  • Agreeing to disagree may be an option when you are with friends and family who hold firm views and whose relationship is important to you.
  • There could be a family get-together with your cousin who steadfastly rejects vaccination and the topic comes up in conversation. Family members start debating it. With strong views on either side, this could be explosive. 
  • Here you could say, “This is a topic we all have strong views about. We could just argue, but I propose that we leave this one alone.”
  • Discussing vaccination would not change your cousin’s mind. Her views are deeply held. Don’t let arguments get in the way of these relationships.

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Affirm vaccination and move on

  • This option can be useful when you want to avoid conflict but also advocate for vaccination. Parent group situations might warrant this approach. 
  • For example, a couple at your antenatal class declare their plan to delay vaccination. While you might feel annoyed, try to focus on a strategic goal: showing other parents it’s not a group norm to delay vaccination.
  • You could say, “We are planning to vaccinate our baby. We think it’s really important.” While this probably won’t persuade the couple, it may reduce their influence on others.

Listen, affirm and recommend

  • This approach may be suitable when you are with family and friends who are hesitant about vaccinating. 
  • For example, your daughter and son-in-law are hesitant about vaccinating their child — your grandchild. These relationships may be important to you, and you probably want to encourage them to vaccinate.
  • Understand their concerns and motivations by listening to what people say and ask clarifying questions. This helps you better understand their reasons. 
  • And, avoid the temptation to jump in, and keep a check on your emotions.
  • This means acknowledging their concerns. A person who feels respected is more likely to listen to your viewpoint. It’s how we all like to be treated. You could say, “I can see you are trying to do your best.”
  • Sharing information means giving factual information relevant to that person, explaining your view, and why you believe it. And, personalize it: “I believe vaccination is important because …”
  • Moreover, close your anti-vaxxer conversation with a plan.

If you truly want to make a difference, avoid the temptation to reflexively correct what you believe is wrong and getting embroiled in lengthy vaccination debates or games of scientific ping pong.

Jump in without thinking, and you risk wasting your time, affecting relationships with family and friends, or even inadvertently amplifying anti-vaccine views. 

Instead, assess that person’s position on vaccination, your goals and what is most important in your relationship, concluded these researchers.

No conflicts of interest were disclosed by Authors: Julie Leask, Professor, University of Sydney; Maryke Steffens, Ph.D. Candidate, Macquarie University.

The 5-year Strategic Plan for NCIRS for 2019–2023 outlines a plan to build on our success and position as cornerstone support for immunization research, surveillance, policy and programs in Australia. 

Vaccine information published by Precision Vaccinations