How to talk to an anti-vax parent (and why you should)

AFTER a bit of an awkward conversation, Karen realised her new 'mum friend' from school was anti-vax and it left her wondering whether she should have spoken up.

We all know parenting can get awkward. And let's face it, usually it's other parents - not the kids - who throw you under the bus. But what if the awkwardness is less like a sticky social moment, and more like an ideological train wreck?

A friend of mine - we'll call her Karen - recently wrote to me about an uncomfortable interaction another parent. It just keeps playing on her mind.

Karen is a mum-of-two and she was recently helping get some paid sponsorship into the school newsletter. She was chatting with another mum - let's call this woman "Ann" - when the conversation quickly went pear-shaped. The after-school-banter-turned-atomic-bomb went like this:

Karen: "I'm considering approaching the local health department to see if they want to pay to put vaccination messaging into the newsletter, since we are totally in their target area."

Ann: "Really? Do you think that's a good idea? I feel very strongly about that issue."

Karen: "I do too. Do you mean you're anti-vaccination?"

Ann: "Yes, I don't talk about it much because I've been hassled about it in the past. But I've done lots of research..."

Karen: "Oh. [Long pause] I don't think we can really talk about this, can we?"

Ann:  "No, probably not."

And so rather than get into an unpleasant argument, these two Mums agreed not to discuss it again - and they haven't. However Karen is not over it.


Should you say something?

"I'm mystified. Not only is Ann a health nut, but I just thought that because she was tertiary educated and involved with children that she would know better," Karen continues, before asking me: "Did I do the right thing? Should I have tried to change her mind?"

Aaarrrgghhh. I'm sure you'll agree this is an insanely sticky situation - especially when you consider the so-called backfire effect. That is, hitting an anti-vaxxer with the pro-vaccination facts might actually entrench them further in their original view, rather than changing their mind.

First things first. Vaccination is crucial. If you're a bit fuzzy about why it's important, Australian GP and television personality Dr Brad McKay puts it simply: "Prevention is better than cure."

"When it comes to staying healthy, the next big thing after shelter, food, and clean water - is vaccination.

"Vaccination is really the best way to teach our immune system how to fight off an infection, before our body is under attack," Dr McKay says.

He goes on to explain that when parents decide not to vaccinate their kids, it can impact numerous others in the population.


Herd immunity is vital

"Community immunity (or herd immunity) is when you have enough people protected against a particular infection, that it doesn't have the chance to take hold in a population and continue to cause disease," Dr Mckay explains.

"In order to achieve 'community immunity' against an infection, we generally need more than 95 percent of the population immunised.

"Unfortunately in many places around Australia, our vaccination rate is much lower than this magic number.

"People who choose not to immunise their family, put themselves and the rest of their community at risk…[and] create chinks in our society's armour against infection," he says.

Dr McKay points to those individuals with impaired immunity - such as people with conditions like diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, cancer, the elderly or frail - and says these folk "can die from simple infections."

"An unvaccinated child, sick with pertussis, could deliver a whooping cough of death to an unsuspecting grandparent, or even to a stranger on the bus.

"Vaccination decreases the chance that someone with an impaired immune system will come in contact with a potential deadly infection," Dr McKay says.


Don't do your own research

As a health professional, Dr McKay also worries about people, just like Ann, doing their own "research."

"Immunise your own kids and if you have any questions, ask your family doctor - not Dr Google," he says.

Meanwhile the Federal Government is so worried about the anti-vaxxer movement, it has just launched a $5.5 million campaign to try and counter the problem.

That's all well and good. But it doesn't immediately help Karen with her dilemma.


No, really. Should you say something?

Let's get further help from another type of doctor - an ethicist. Dr Matt Beard, a fellow at The Ethics Centre, acknowledges the complexity of the situation.

"First, you never have a duty to do something impossible. If you can't change somebody's mind, it would be unfair to say you have an obligation to try to persuade them anyway.

"So if Ann is totally set in her beliefs, Karen shouldn't feel like it's her job to change them. That goes beyond what ethics would require of her in this case," he says.

"It looks like Karen has opted to preserve her relationship with Ann by avoiding the topic. And generally speaking, relationships are good things and we should try to preserve them.

"If we decide we're only ever going to be friends with people who have the same political or ethical opinions as us, we might be closing ourselves off from enriching relationships and intellectually stimulating worldviews," Dr Beard says.

Do you raise your views if you have a newborn or if you have a compromised immune system?
Do you raise your views if you have a newborn or if you have a compromised immune system? Bev Lacey

However, he points to the aforementioned notion of "herd immunity" and says: "This means some vulnerable people need other people to vaccinate."

"If we're safe because we're vaccinated, it can be easy to avoid conflict by leaving vaccination alone if you know there's conflicting opinion.

"But would we let go so easily if we were immunocompromised? If we had a newborn child (who is too young to be vaccinated)? And if not, we might want to think about whether we have a duty to speak up for the people who will actually suffer if vaccination rates drop too low," he says.

"Lots of people would say there's a principle not to intervene in the way someone else raises their children, so Karen should keep her opinions to herself…[but] we don't allow people to parent however they want."As a general principle, when there is a risk of harm, the way you raise your kids isn't just a private matter," Dr Beard continues.


Try to be nice

For those attempting to tackle the vaccination question with someone who doesn't hold their view, Dr Beard has plenty of sage advice. It boils down to this: Don't be judgy.     

"At the outset, I'd suggest avoiding the temptation to make assumptions about the character of people who have a different point of view.

"We can dismiss ideas as ridiculous or unreasonable, but need to be careful to do so in a way that's respectful of the people who hold those ideas.

"More effective strategies for conversation include making sure the other person feels understood. If we try to repeat someone's point of view back to them to show we're trying to understand them in good faith, they're going to be more open to pursuing a conversation," he says.

For factual information about vaccination, read this booklet.

News Corp Australia

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