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A Measles Outbreak Offers Lessons In Public Health Messaging

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Demand continues to outstrip the supply of coronavirus vaccines, and at the same time, there are millions of Americans who either don't want the shot or aren't sure. A recent measles outbreak in the Pacific Northwest offers lessons in convincing more people to say yes to vaccine protection. Will Stone has this report.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Two years ago, Dr. Alan Melnick was confronting another viral outbreak in his community - measles. Melnick is the health officer in Clark County, Wash., just across the river from Portland, a place where many parents were hesitant to vaccinate their children.

ALAN MELNICK: It was, like, almost portrayed as the vaccine is more dangerous than the disease itself, which was absolutely the opposite and ridiculous.

STONE: More than 20% of school children were not vaccinated at the time. The outbreak grew to more than 70 measles cases in Melnick's county. Misinformation was rampant. Anti-vaccine groups tried to downplay the risk, saying...

MELNICK: Measles is no big deal. Everybody gets it. You know, it's not going to hurt.

STONE: Measles can kill children and damage the brain and nervous system. Melnick says their approach was to be transparent but not try to suppress anti-vaccine claims. They put out accurate information. The vaccination rate for measles skyrocketed.

MELNICK: Fear is a motivator, but so is trust.

STONE: Melnick says fear only works in the short term. As fewer cases showed up, the rush to vaccinate slowed.

MELNICK: If you wait until an outbreak to build those relationships, you know, you're behind already.

STONE: A lot of the work addressing vaccine hesitancy happened out of sight, in places like Dr. Dino Ramzi's office.

DINO RAMZI: It's a slog. It's really person by person, visit by visit.

STONE: Ramzi, a vaccine advocate, worries about mistrust around COVID vaccines. It's even harder to counteract because it's a new vaccine, and doctors truly don't know all the answers.

RAMZI: I think we're in a pickle. I don't think it's going to necessarily go all positively. And I think that there could be a lot of unnecessary fear generated.

STONE: Seattle mom Brooke Fotheringham understands that fear. She fell down the rabbit hole of vaccine suspicion right after her first son was born.

BROOKE FOTHERINGHAM: Start going online to different mommy groups, Facebook groups. You're asking questions. And people are, of course, waiting in the wings to fill your head with all sorts of reasons to be scared.

STONE: It took several years for her to start fully vaccinating her children. She says it only happened through long conversations, learning the science, how to read medical studies, finding experts who could answer her questions.

FOTHERINGHAM: People have to feel safe before they can think about things clearly. But I think that's where people who get frustrated run into a wall - is they are, like, if I can't change your mind today, all is lost. It's hopeless.

STONE: Fotheringham says her main hobby now is talking to parents who have doubts about vaccines. Dr. Jonathan Temte at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health studies vaccine hesitancy.

JONATHAN TEMTE: It's not a monolithic thing that we look at. It's a combination of many things.

STONE: With COVID-19, he says, some fear it was rushed or distrust Trump. Others have anti-government views and resist masks or deny the pandemic itself. But he believes for most people who are on the fence...

TEMTE: They want to see how this rolls out in other people. Did my neighbor, did my friend, did other family members get this?

MARTIN: A recent national poll finds about 70% of the public will likely get the vaccine. That's up about 10% from September.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone.

MARTIN: This story comes from NPR's partnership with Kaiser Health News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLEN PORTER'S "THE DEVIL'S CHARIOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.