Opinion | How to Motivate People to Get a Vaccine

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By Anupam B. Jena and Christopher M. Worsham

Dr. Jena is an economist, a physician and an associate professor of health care policy and medicine at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Worsham is a critical care physician and public health researcher at Harvard Medical School.

At this point in the pandemic, many Americans remain unvaccinated because they believe the coronavirus vaccine is unlikely to do them any good. They’re aware of the virus and the damage it can cause, but for any number of reasons, they simply don’t believe they should get a vaccine. We’ve spoken to patients like this in our practice, and we have observed in those conversations that providing more, frightening information intended to change their beliefs is ineffective for many or may even cause further entrenchment against vaccination.

Public health experts have tried many different methods to motivate behavior like vaccination. Our recent research shows even more clearly that providing additional information may not be one of the strongest tools.

In a study published on Dec. 13, we examined data from about 750,000 children who were eligible to receive the human papilloma virus vaccine to prevent cervical cancer. Since the HPV vaccine was approved in 2006, it has experienced resistance from parents and religious and conservative groups who see it as promoting sexual behavior. Its politicization was a preview for what has happened with the coronavirus vaccines in the United States.

Our research question was: Are mothers who themselves had cervical cancer more likely to have their children vaccinated against HPV? We thought that for this group of mothers, a lack of information about the consequences of HPV couldn’t possibly affect their decision to vaccinate their children against the virus. These women had personally suffered from cervical cancer, so, presumably, they would be especially well informed about the harms of this virus and the disease it causes.

What we found surprised us: The girls and boys whose mothers had cervical cancer were no more likely to be vaccinated against HPV compared with children whose mothers had no history of cervical disease. Children whose mothers had a cancer “scare” — a biopsy of cervical cells that ended up not being cancerous — were only slightly more likely to be vaccinated. But having cervical cancer or a cervical cancer scare did not result in the large increase in vaccination rates that we were expecting.

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