PROVO — Deborah Johnson grew up hearing stories about relatives and ancestors who suffered as a result of diseases that are now vaccine-preventable.
A great-uncle who was left half paralyzed by polio. A mom and dad who once experienced measles and the mumps.
But when Johnson, a Brigham Young University graduate student, listened to students in a class talking about polio, she realized most of them hadn't actually heard personal stories about people who have had infectious diseases.
Many of those who are having children today didn't hear such stories in childhood because their parents grew up in an age with vaccines, Johnson says.
Provo, where BYU is located, ranks sixth nationally for under-vaccinated kindergartners, according to a study by researchers from Baylor College of Medicine. Salt Lake City ranks number five.
Measles outbreaks have hit 19 states this year, prompting an Intermountain Healthcare medical director in April to warn Utahns that we're just "one airline flight away" from our own outbreak. At least 981 measles cases have been confirmed this year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And several people, including children, have gotten mumps in Utah this year.
On the day her class talked about polio, Johnson said, "The professor and I looked at each other and said, 'Huh, what if we had the kids go out and actually get stories like this on their own?'"
The idea became an extra-credit assignment and turned into a study that was published in May in the scholarly journal Vaccines. Johnson was the study's lead author.
About 570 students participated in winter 2018. Half were asked to interview someone who'd had a vaccine-preventable disease and the other half — the control group — interviewed subjects with autoimmune diseases.
Of those participating, 83 reported they were "vaccine hesitant," meaning they were on the fence about vaccines. Some of the students were also enrolled in courses that discussed vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases, while some were enrolled in classes that didn't discuss vaccines.
During the study, students found people in their families and community to interview. Most of the students in the group who interviewed people with vaccine-preventable diseases talked to those who had experienced shingles, a rash that can happen in people who have had chickenpox.
"Even talking to people with shingles was enough to convince most people," Johnson said.
The biggest factors that convinced students to become pro-vaccine were hearing about pain and physical limitations like not being able to go to work, according to Johnson.
One student who interviewed a woman with shingles reported, "The pain was so bad that she ended up at a pain management clinic where they did steroid shots into her spine. The pain meds didn’t even touch her pain, even the heavy ones. For months she couldn’t leave the house," researchers wrote.
The student further said, "The project showed how the lack of vaccination is essentially accepting the pain and suffering that comes with disease," according to the study.
The researchers discovered that nearly 70 percent of the vaccine-hesitant students — including those without courses that discussed vaccines — became pro-vaccine after interviewing someone who'd suffered a vaccine-preventable disease.
Factoring in students in the control group, 75 percent of the students overall became more positive toward vaccines, with 50 percent total becoming pro-vaccine.
Johnson believes these findings are important because, in a time when infectious diseases are again entering our dialogue, "When you have vulnerable people who can't get vaccines, it's up to the people who can to protect them. … And I think a lot of issues have been we see dangers in front of us, and those are the dangers we react to."
The current generation of new parents has heard about autism and toxins, Johnson explained, "But they haven't seen the measles. They haven't seen the mumps. They don't know people like my step-great-grandmother whose husband was sterile because he had mumps in his 20s. … And so they're more willing to react to these dangers that they see with the vaccine than be aware of the dangers that are behind them."
"Vaccines are victims of their own success," Brian Poole, BYU associate professor of microbiology and molecular biology, explained in a news release. "They’re so effective that most people have no experience with vaccine preventable diseases. We need to reacquaint people with the dangers of those diseases."
Johnson believes the fear society used to have of diseases like polio and mumps has been transferred to things of "lesser concern."
"There's a lot of innocent people suffering because of it, children," Johnson said.
She said it's important to note that the findings aren't expected to help convince those who are already anti-vaccination — but could help those who are on the fence. For many people, the impediments to vaccination also include cost and other limitations.
"If your goal is to affect people’s decisions about vaccines, this process works much better than trying to combat anti-vaccine information. … It shows people that these diseases really are serious diseases, with painful and financial costs, and people need to take them seriously," Poole said in the release.
Johnson emphasized that the method used in the study won't convert everyone to become pro-vaccine.
"This is not the cure. It works for this population at this time," she said.