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Opinion To combat anti-vaxxer myths, teach children – not parents – to be immunity warriors

Kumanan Wilson is a physician and scientist at the Ottawa Hospital and professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa.

Alien invaders descend upon a futuristic city and break through its force field. The city activates its defences and launches a counterattack. A young scientist discovers the truth!

No, it’s not a new Netflix series. This is the theme of a digital motion comic book my team at the Ottawa Hospital along with students at Algonquin College created, called Immunity Warriors Invasion of the Alien Zombies, to teach kids about immunization. After being "volunteered” by my wife to give a lecture on science to my son’s Grade 6 class, and inspired by Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I decided to describe the immune system and vaccines using a space-invasion analogy. I found the students to be very receptive, engaged and able to understand pretty advanced concepts. As someone who has been studying vaccine hesitancy for the better part of the past two decades, I was wondering if we had perhaps been missing the boat. We have been focusing heavily on adult attitudes toward vaccines but there is no clear evidence as to what strategy works. And sometimes, the results are paradoxical. For example, many years ago, while I was at the University of Toronto, we conducted a study where we had a polio survivor explain her experiences with the disease to a vaccine-hesitant population, and how a vaccine could have improved her life. We actually made some people more anti-vaccine. They chose to reject the messenger as a method of cognitive-dissonance resolution when presented with knowledge that was discordant with their existing belief systems. Other studies have had similar results. Strong beliefs in adulthood are very difficult to change. This is particularly true with respect to convincing the anti-vaccine crowd. Think of the current U.S. political divide, on steroids.

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But what if we focused on kids’ attitudes instead? This approach would require more patience, since we would have to wait for the next generation of vaccinators to have children. But, ultimately, it could bear more fruit.

Teaching kids about vaccines makes sense for several reasons. Children’s attitudes are more malleable than adults and thus more likely to be influenced. Kids’ experience with vaccines are also largely negative – a shot in the arm – which could colour their perception of vaccines in adulthood. This negative experience needs to be countered with positive messaging. An increasing number of vaccines are also being administered to adolescents, meaning children will be involved in decision-making about vaccination. And recently, there have been stories of unvaccinated teenagers asking their doctors about vaccines. One teen in the United States even testified about his experience with vaccine misinformation to Congress.

Maybe, most importantly, the science of the immune system is really amazing and a great way to both create positive attitudes about vaccines and get children interested in immunology. We can get students excited about science and protect the public’s health at the same time.

There are already a lot of great examples of initiatives to teach children about vaccines. Kids Boost Immunity is an innovative project out of British Columbia that donates vaccines to people in need for every quiz on vaccines that a student successfully completes. The Vaccine Makers Project, sponsored by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, provides lessons for introducing vaccination education to classrooms. These and other initiatives are great starts but also create some questions. What’s the best age to teach children and what form of messaging is the most effective? Can we leverage digital technologies such as apps, games and virtual reality to create compelling and fun experience for learners? Can we make children advocates for vaccines and influence their parents?

The once largely theoretical concern about vaccine hesitancy is starting to tangibly materialize. Called a top threat to global health in 2019 by the World Health Organization, vaccine hesitancy has been identified as an important contributor to recent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases – most notably measles.

We can engage eager young minds and teach the amazing science of the immune system and miracle of vaccination. Or we can keep banging our heads against the wall talking to dyed-in-the-wool anti-vaccine adults. I know what I would rather do.

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