Facing vocal vaccine deniers in public debate

In December 2016, immunization managers met at WHO Regional Office for Europe for a training workshop and discussions on how to best face this challenge.

Vaccines protect the health and lives of billions. Affecting so many of us, their safety continues to be carefully scrutinized. Rigorous systems are in place to detect rare vaccine reactions, examine new suspicions about adverse events and continuously review vaccine safety based on the most recent research.

Still, there are people who question science and do not find vaccines safe or necessary – the so-called science deniers. Vocal vaccine deniers are people who do not accept recommended vaccines, criticize the scientific approach as a whole and are not open to a change of mind. At the same time, they are vocal and actively lobbying against vaccination, often in an emotional and rhetorically compelling way.

Vocal vaccine deniers pose a threat to the fight against potentially debilitating or even fatal diseases, such as polio, diphtheria or measles, when they promote misinformation and myths and deny scientific evidence in favour of vaccination. Uncertainty or concerns, however unfounded, may discourage parents from protecting their children and health workers from promoting this simple, safe and effective means to save lives.

WHO/Europe has developed guidance for immunization representatives and spokespersons on facing such vocal vaccine deniers in public. The guidance is based on psychological research on persuasion, myth debunking and science denialism, communication science and WHO risk communication guidelines. It offers an overview of the topics and techniques most commonly used by vocal vaccine deniers and suggests strategies to respond to them.

Through training workshops and technical consultations, WHO/Europe is working closely with Member States to apply and continuously refine the approaches. The approaches are also being tested at the Psychology and Infectious Disease Lab at Erfurt University, Germany.