The vaccination and anti-vaccination movements have waged battle against each other for decades. In February 1998, Andrew Wakefield published a medical paper describing a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Few people realize the anti-vaccination movement existed long before that paper. Science matters little to the general public because perception takes precedent.
These days, both movements fight a public relations battle, and the landscape constantly changes. Regardless, this is a true PR Crisis for the medical community; with a strong communications plan needed to combat vaccine deniers.
In our current reality, we don’t face the historic rise and fall of certain diseases that seemed to flood through the population every so many years. The last big outbreak of polio in the U.S. was in 1952 and was devastating, not just taking making lives, but leaving many others with lifelong crippling impact. Even those who seemed to be cured saw some of the effects coming back to haunt them later in life. But 1952 sufferers are almost all a part of history. We are no longer faced with that living example in the public, such as we once were with someone like President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
When Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine, the scientific and medical community saw great possibilities, the general population required a bit more convincing. They were a generation who experienced polio outbreaks about every 20 years or so – at least in more rural settings. Salk’s vaccine was a “live virus” vaccine, and you can bet there were a lot of people who were deeply frightened that using the vaccine could create an outbreak wiping out the population.
Similarly, smallpox is often said to be gone, so why continue a vaccination which could have some negative impact on a small percentage of the population. Nevertheless, every couple of years or so, there seems to be a small outbreak of it somewhere in the world. And with some of these, the strains have become stronger and harder to treat with current medications. There are risks from either side of the coin, many of the vaccinations are “live virus” versions, introducing a small amount of the disease into the human body so it can create antibodies to fight the problem if a more virulent version of the disease hit the population.
Mandated vaccinations vs. voluntary use
In most cases, no one has a problem with the use of vaccines traditionally given after childhood, such as flu shots generally recommended for those with weak immune systems and older members of the population. It’s the enforced vaccines, required for such things as admittance into public school. The federal government doesn’t have any mandates on these, mainly because the federal government tends to look at health issues as being part of the state’s rights to govern themselves. However, with healthcare becoming more and more an enforced issue by the federal government, it is possible that vaccines could become a mandated issue required for public safety. Not many are focusing on that possibility, but it is there all the same.
Looking at this situation requires an acknowledgment of the “American Spirit.” Looking at any story about the history of America and you are going to hit a few common words – independent, trailblazers, not easily herded into ideas, concepts, or anything taking away a perceived freedom. Sound familiar? In this, we, the people, have always had a certain distrust of government, choosing instead options of self-government.
It’s the same fight faced by those wanting to control any aspect of what we consider our rights. Mandated vaccination, gun control, freedom of speech – all battle the same part of the American consciousness that is ready to fight anyone telling us what we MUST do. When the experts disagree on the impact and effect, even if it is only a small portion of the experts on one side of that fence, we can’t help but remember some of the sins of the government in past years.
Whichever side of the battle you or your client embraces, public relations (and possibly public affairs) needs to factor in that spirit. If you’re working on campaigns against mandated use of a vaccine, then recognize you may already be on the winning side currently. But be prepared for the possibility of a crisis and make plans for that. Making allusions to past attempts by the government to sometimes use health issues against members of the public may be one approach, but look for more positive ones to enforce the good in your message.
If you represent organizations pushing toward mandating a vaccine as a requirement for something like admittance to a public school, which is often the situation, know your disease. When was the last outbreak and where, how strong was that version of the virus and what would happen if it hit a community without the children with a “built-in” defense system. What is the possible death toll in that situation? Fear is a good motivator, but temper it with the broader picture of keeping the entire community safe, not just one child.
Here’s a look at the current PR winners and losers:
The number of people against vaccinations has grown in recent years. Despite increased media coverage, anti-vaxxers continue to gain momentum. Wakefield’s paper was recanted years ago, but anti-vaxxers are against vaccines for other reasons. This includes concerns about safety and the role of personal freedoms. Either way, these individuals are gaining favor in the public eye thanks to various factors.
Pro-vaxxers have the benefit of scientific evidence on their side. Likewise, they hold the noble notion of wanting to protect the general public. These same individuals are sometimes vilified for pushing mandated vaccinations, though. Most people believe that vaccinations are safe, but they’re less in favor of legally mandated vaccines. These days, pro-vaxxers have to fight a battle that makes them seem pushy and self-righteous, so they’re PR losers overall.
The Media: Winners
Although biases in the media exist, the collective media wins. Increased coverage of the vaccine wars can only improve ratings. Plus, certain outlets have taken a firm stance on this issue, winning the hearts of that particular side. Media outlets reap the rewards of covering this battle without facing too much scrutiny. The general public uses the media to form their opinions on matters after all.
Scientists and Health Officials: Losers
The scientific community has claimed that vaccines are safe since their inception. Similarly, health officials have touted vaccines and pushed for their use. Both of these groups are public relations losers today. They advocate for vaccines and use science to back up their claims. However, public opinion rallies against these officials because the general public seems to mistrust scientists and the government.
The Vaccine Wars Are Far From Over!
Public opinion on the vaccine wars continues to change every so often. Anti-vaxxers continue to make gains in the public eye, yet that could change tomorrow. All it would take is an outbreak of one of these diseases, thought to be eradicated previously, such as smallpox, and the tide of public opinion could turn in a very ugly heartbeat.
In the end, it seems as though the media is the only guaranteed winner at all times. Health officials, researchers, and pro-vaxxers seem to be fighting a losing battle. This can be attributed to Americans’ desire to decide upon vaccinations, including mandatory vaccinations, themselves. The war is far from over, though.