TIME vaccines

How to Change an Anti-Vaxxer’s Mind

TIME.com stock photos Health Syringe Needle
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

It's not easy, but a new study suggests one way to help persuade parents to vaccinate their children

Let’s take a moment and praise anti-vaccine parents. Really. They’re wrong on the science, wrong on the politics, and deeply, morally wrong to deny their own children a simple disease preventive that they themselves likely enjoyed growing up. But like all parents everywhere, they’re acting on a simple, powerful impulse: to keep their children healthy.

That’s a very noble goal, but it’s also one of the things that makes it so bloody hard to change their minds on the topic of vaccines. Public service campaigns don’t work; nor do one-on-one explanations of why the rumors about a vaccine-autism link are wrong. In some cases, there is even a backfire effect: the greater the effort expended to persuade the anti-vaxxers, the more convinced they become that they’re right.

So it’s extremely good news that researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign may at last have come up with a way to cut through the misinformation and get the truth across: Don’t just tell parents to vaccinate their children, show them what happens if they don’t.

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team led by graduate student Zachary Horne recruited a sample group of 315 people—both parents and non-parents—and first conducted a simple survey designed to measure their pre-existing attitudes to vaccines. The subjects were asked to respond on a six-point scale, from “strongly agree” to “strongly disagree,” to five statements that included, “The risks of side effects outweighs any potential benefits of vaccines” and “I plan to vaccinate my children.”

All of the subjects were then divided into three groups: One group was given material to read about the latest research showing that autism and vaccines are in no way related. The second group was given a paragraph to read written in the voice of a mother describing what it was like when her child contracted measles; three pictures of children with measles, mumps and rubella; and written warnings about the importance of vaccinating children. The third group, serving as a control, read material on an unrelated science topic.

When the three groups’ attitudes to vaccines were tested again, the results were striking. Both the control and the so-called “autism correction” group showed a slight uptick in their approval of vaccines, but in neither case were the numbers terribly significant. The group that had learned about the wages of vaccine denialism changed markedly, however, with increased approval rates five times larger than those in the autism correction group and six times larger than in the control group.

“Rather than attempting to dispel myths about the dangers of vaccinations,” the researchers wrote, “we recommend that the very real dangers posed by serious diseases like measles, mumps and rubella be emphasized.”

As TIME reported in the Oct. 6, 2014 issue, this is precisely the approach that worked during the mumps outbreak in Columbus, Ohio last year. College students were nonchalant about getting vaccinated, but when they learned that the disease can lead to sterility in both men and women, they were a lot more inclined to step up for their shots. “I was pretty freaked out,” one Ohio State University student said. “I didn’t know mumps could lead to any of that.”

The power of the show-don’t-tell approach is nothing new. It’s the reason behind the anti-tobacco shock ads showing people dying of lung cancer, as well as the surgery fund-raising ads showing photos of babies with cleft lips. The trick in all of these cases is getting people to act fast. If too much time elapses between image and potential action, the power of the message is lost.

For that reason, Horne and his co-authors suggest that future research should look at the effectiveness of including the kind of counseling that was used in their study during routine well-baby visits, when vaccinating the child on the spot is an option. After all, the effect of scaring a parent straight may be temporary, but the damage done to a child who contracts a vaccine-preventable disease can be for life.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME medicine

Meet the Heroes and Villains of Vaccine History

A California legislator who faces a recall campaign for his support of a law mandating vaccinations is just one of the heroes in the history of vaccines. Alas, there are villains too

  • Edward Jenner

    Edward Jenner Vaccines
    Popperfoto/Getty Images Edward Jenner

    No one knows the name of the dairy maid 13-year old Edward Jenner overheard speaking in Sodbury, England in 1762, but everyone knows what she said: “I shall never have smallpox for I have had cowpox. I shall never have an ugly pockmarked face.” Jenner was already a student of medicine at the time, apprenticed to a country surgeon, and the remark stayed with him. But it was not until 34 years later, in 1796, that he first tried to act on the dairy maid’s wisdom, vaccinating an 8-year-old boy with a small sample from another dairy maid’s cowpox lesion, and two months later exposing the same boy to smallpox. The experiment was unethical by almost any standard—except perhaps the standards of its time—but it worked. Jenner became the creator of the world’s first vaccine, and 184 years later, in 1980, smallpox became the first—and so far only—disease to have been vaccinated out of existence.

  • Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin

    Albert Sabin Jonas Salk Vaccines
    Mondadori/Getty Images; PhotoQuest/Getty Images Left: Albert Sabin in his laboratory in 1960; Right: Jonas Salk

    Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin didn’t much care for each other. The older, arid Sabin and the younger, eager Salk would never have been good matches no matter what, but their differences in temperament were nothing compared to a disagreement they had over science. Both researchers were part of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis—later dubbed the March of Dimes—and both were trying to develop a polio vaccine. Sabin was convinced that only a live, weakened virus could do the trick; Salk was convinced a newer approach—using the remains of a killed virus—would be better and safer. Both men turned out to be right. Salk’s vaccine was proven successful in 1955; Sabin’s—which was easier to administer, especially in the developing world, but can cause the rare case of vaccine-induced polio due to viral mutations—followed in 1962. Both vaccines have pushed polio to the brink of eradication. It is now endemic in only three countries—Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria—and appears, at last, destined to follow smallpox over the extinction cliff.

  • Dr. Maurice Hilleman

    Dr. Maurice Hilleman Vaccines
    Ed Clark—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image Dr. Maurice Hilleman (center) talks with his research team as they study the flu virus in a lab at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Silver Springs, Md. in 1957.

    Around the world, untold numbers of children owe their health to a single girl who woke up sick with mumps in the early morning hours of March 21, 1963. The girl was Jeryl Lynne Hilleman, who was then only 5; her father was a Merck pharmaceuticals scientist with an enduring interest in vaccines. Dr. Maurice Hilleman did what he could to comfort his daughter, knowing the disease would run its course; but he also bristled at the fact that a virus could have its way with his child. So he collected a saliva sample from the back of her throat, stored it in his office, and used it to begin his work on a mumps vaccine. He succeeded at that—and a whole lot more. Over the course of the next 15 years, Hilleman worked not only on protecting children against mumps, but also on refining existing measles and rubella vaccines and combining them into the three-in-one MMR shot that now routinely immunizes children against a trio of illnesses in one go. In the 21st century alone, the MMR has been administered to 1 billion children worldwide—not a bad outcome from a single case of a sickly girl.

  • Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering

    Pearl Kendrick Vaccines
    University of Michigan School of Public Health Pearl Kendrick

    It was not easy to be a woman in the sciences in the 1930s, something that Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering knew well. Specialists in public health—one of the only scientific fields open to women at the time—they were employed by the Michigan Department of Health, working on the routine business of sampling milk and water supplies for safety. But in their free time they worried about pertussis—or whooping cough. The disease was, at the time, killing 6,000 children per year and sickening many, many more. The poor were the most susceptible—and in 1932, the third year of the Great Depression, there were plenty of poor people to go around. A pertussis vaccine did exist, but it was not a terribly effective one. Kendrick and Eldering set out to develop a better one, collecting pertussis samples from patients on “cough plates,” and researching how to incorporate the virus into a vaccine that would provide more robust immunity. They tested their vaccine first on mice, then on themselves and finally, in 1934, on 734 children. Of those, only four contracted whooping cough that year. Of the 880 unvaccinated children in a control group, 45 got sick. Within 15 years of the development of Kendrick and Eldering’s vaccine, the pertussis rate in the U.S. dropped by 75%. By 1960 it was 95%—and has continued to fall.

  • Dr. Richard Pan

    Sacramento California News - June 30, 2015
    Madeline Lear—Sacramento Bee/ZUMA Wire June 30, 2015 - Sacramento, California - Senator Richard Pan (right) speaks during a press conference at William Land Park Elementary School in Sacramento on June 30, 2015, where vaccination advocates thanked the legislature and Gov. Brown for passing Senate Bill 277, which eliminates personal and religious belief exemptions for vaccines.

    The work that’s done at the lab bench is not the only thing that makes vaccines possible; the work that’s done by policymakers matters a lot too. That is especially true in the case of California State Senator Richard Pan, a pediatrician by training who represents Sacramento and the surrounding communities. Pan was the lead sponsor of the recently enacted Senate Bill 277, designed to raise California’s falling vaccine rate by eliminating the religious and personal belief exemptions that many parents use to sidestep the responsibility for vaccinating their children. For Pan’s troubles, he now faces a possible recall election, with anti-vaccine activists trying to collect a needed 35,926 signatures by Dec. 31 to put the matter before the district’s voters. Pan is taking the danger of losing his Senate seat with equanimity—and counting on the people who elected him in the first place to keep him on the job. “I ran to be sure we keep our communities safe and healthy,” he told the Sacramento Bee. That is, at once, both a very simple and very ambitious goal, made all the harder by parents who ought to know better.

  • Dr. Andrew Wakefield

    Dr. Andrew Wakefield Vaccines Autism
    Shaun Curry—AFP/Getty Images From right: Dr. Andrew Wakefield and his wife, Carmel arrive at the General Medical Council (GMC) in central London on Jan.28, 2010.

    Not every conspiracy theory has a bad guy. No one knows the name of the founding kooks who got the rumor started that the moon landings were faked or President Obama was born on a distant planet. But when it comes to the know-nothing tales that vaccines are dangerous, there’s one big bad guy—Andrew Wakefield, the U.K. doctor who in 1998 published a fraudulent study in The Lancet alleging that the MMR vaccine causes autism. The reaction from frightened parents was predictable, and vaccination rates began to fall, even as scientific authorities insisted that Wakefield was just plain wrong. In 2010, the Lancet retracted the study and Wakefield was stripped of his privilege to practice medicine in the U.K. But the damage was done and the rumors go on—and Wakefield, alas, remains unapologetic.

  • Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey

    Jenny McCarthy Jim Carrey Vaccines Autism
    Brendan Hoffman—Getty Images Jim Carrey (center) carries Evan McCarthy, son of actress Jenny McCarthy (left) during a march calling for healthier vaccines on June 4, 2008 in Washington.

    If you’re looking for solid medical advice, you probably want to avoid getting it from a former Playboy model and talk show host, and a man who, in 1994’s Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, introduced the world to the comic stylings of his talking buttocks. But all the same, Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey are best known these days as the anti-vaccine community’s most high-profile scaremongers, doing even the disgraced Andrew Wakefield one better by alleging that vaccines cause a whole range of other ills beyond just autism. None of this is true, all of it is shameful, and unlike Wakefield, who was stripped of his medical privileges, Carry and McCarthy can’t have their megaphones revoked.

  • Rob Schneider

    Rob Schneider Vaccines
    Richard Shotwell—Invision/AP Rob Schneider in 2014.

    What’s that you say? Need one more expert beyond Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey to weigh in on vaccines? How about Rob Schneider, the Saturday Night Live alum and star of the Deuce Bigalow, Male Gigolo films? Schneider has claimed that the effectiveness of vaccines has “not been proven,” that “We’re having more and more autism” as a result of vaccinations, and that mandating vaccines for kids attending public schools is “against the Nuremberg laws.” So, um, that’s all wrong. A vocal opponent of the new California law eliminating the religious and personal belief exemptions that allowed parents to opt out of vaccinating their kids, Schneider called the office of state legislator Lorena Gonzalez and left what Gonzalez described as a “disturbing message” with her staff, threatening to raise money against her in the coming election because of her support of the law. Gonzalez called him back and conceded that he was much more polite in person. Still, she wrote on her Facebook page, “that is 20 mins of my life I’ll never get back arguing that vaccines don’t cause autism with Deuce Bigalow, male gigolo.#vaccinateyourkids.”

  • Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

    Robert Kennedy, Jr. Vaccines
    Rich Pedroncelli—AP Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. speaks against a measure requiring California schoolchildren to get vaccinated during a rally at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on April 8, 2015.

    If you’re looking for proof that smarts can skip a generation, look no further that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., son of the late Bobby Kennedy. RFK Jr. has made something of a cottage industry out of warning people of the imagined dangers of thimerosal in vaccines. An organomercury compound, thimerosal is used as a preservative, and has been removed from all but the flu vaccine—principally because of the entirely untrue rumors that it causes brain damage. But facts haven’t silenced Kennedy who, as a child of the 1950s and ‘60s, surely got all of the vaccines his family doctor recommended. Children of parents who listen to what he has to say now will not be so fortunate.

TIME vaccines

Seattle Flunks Vaccine Science

Northwest nonsense: Vaccine rates in Seattle are dangerously low
Edmund Lowe Photography; Getty Images/Moment RF Northwest nonsense: Vaccine rates in Seattle are dangerously low

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

In the same week Nigeria frees itself from polio, vaccine rates continue to fall in the Pacific northwest

Nothing says First World city like Seattle does. Come for the cachet, stay for the Seahawks, and give a nod to the Starbucks and the Amazon and the mothership that is Microsoft just to the east. There’s nothing this so-hip-it-hurts town lacks, it seems—except perhaps for common sense. If you’re looking for that, the developing world is a far better bet.

That’s the inescapable conclusion on what should be a very good week for public health—and childhood health in particular—with the World Health Organization and other groups announcing on July 24 that Nigeria has gone a full year without a single reported case of polio. Pending further certification, the country will be removed from the dwindling list of countries in which the disease is endemic, leaving just Pakistan and Afghanistan. If Nigeria’s caseload remains at zero for two more years, it will be officially declared polio free.

How did the country that as recently as 1988 saw 30,000 children—a stadium’s worth—paralyzed or killed by polio every year achieve such a stunning turnaround? No surprise: vaccines—the same vaccines that have saved the lives and health of millions of children around the world, and the same vaccines that saw polio eradicated entirely in the U.S. in 1979.

So it came as a head-slapping development that earlier this month, Seattle news outlets reported that polio vaccination rates in their city have hit a low of just 81.4%, or worse than the rates in Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Algeria, El Salvador, Guyana, Sudan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Yemen, according to the WHO. Why? Because Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Algeria, El Salvador, Guyana, Sudan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Yemen may have a lot of problems, but they don’t have the anti-vaccine crazies.

Vaccine denialism is a perverse affliction of people who should be smarter than they act—the well-educated, high-income folks who know just enough to know too much, and to assume that simply because they haven’t seen a disease in a long time it’s gone away. And hey, if it does turn up, they’ve surely got the resources to deal with it.

That’s the reason that in the U.S., anti-vaxxers tend to cluster in wealthy, blue-state communities like Silicon Valley, New York City, Columbus, Seattle and it’s down-coast little sister Portland. It’s the reason too that the nonsense that animates the anti-vaxxers—the idea that vaccines are toxic or overprescribed or nothing more than a cash grab by big pharma and big government—is a lot likelier to gain traction in other wealthy countries around the world than in ones that have only recently done away with scourges like polio or are still struggling with them, and either way have images of sick or dying children still fresh in their minds.

“Polio is nonexistent in the states, so if you’re going to travel, it makes sense to do it,” said one Washington State resident interviewed by Seattle’s KUOW radio station on July 14. “We are doing vaccines based on our family’s needs, not based on what doctors say we need to follow.”

Never mind how abjectly ridiculous that thinking sounds if you shift its frame even a little: “We are fire-proofing our home based on our family’s needs, not based on what the fire department say we need to follow,” or “We are fastening our seat belts during turbulence based on our family’s needs, not based on what flight attendants say we need to follow.”

Never mind, too, that that the very reason polio is non-existent in the states is because people have been good about getting vaccinated and that, as an outbreak in an unvaccinated Amish community in 2003 showed, there is no virus in the world that isn’t just an incoming airline flight away. If it lands in a community where vaccine rates are low, it will find plenty of people to infect.

What’s more, while polio may indeed have been KO’ed in the states years ago, measles, mumps, rubella, whooping cough and more are all very much still at large, and outbreaks of those diseases have been on the rise thanks to the anti-vaxxers. The vaccination rate for measles, mumps and rubella specifically is below 90% among Seattle kindergarteners, dangerously short of the 95% rate needed to keep communities as a whole protected.

For most people, living in the developed world is a mere accident of birth and geography—a demographic freebie that gets you started in life far ahead of people born in less lucky places. Privilege can be part of that first world birthright, as can wealth and freedom and the opportunity for good heath. But smarts, it seems, have to be earned. That, clearly, is something Nigeria and Rwanda could teach Seattle.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME vaccines

This Is How Nigeria Beat Polio

Goodbye to all that: Computer-generated model of a poliovirus
Calysta Images ;Getty Images/Tetra images RF Goodbye to all that: Computer-generated model of a poliovirus

A quarter-century campaign brings the world tantalizingly close to eradicating a disease

It’s easy not to notice a negative. A house burns down on your block and it’s all you can talk about. But a house doesn’t burn down? Where’s the news?

Still, absence can be the stuff of headlines, and that fact has rarely been truer than it is in Nigeria today—where health officials are celebrating a full year without a single case of polio. A polio-free Nigeria means a polio-free Africa, since it was the only country left of the 47 on the continent where the crippling disease was still endemic. The virus, which as recently as 1988 was endemic in 128 countries, crippling 350,000 children per year, has now been cornered in just two places—Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it’s barely hanging on there. Wipe polio out in those last two redoubts and it will become only the second disease in history—after smallpox—to have been vaccinated out of existence.

“We are celebrating the first time ever that Nigeria has gone without a case of polio, but with caution,” said Dr. Tunji Funsho, who leads Rotary International’s anti-polio campaign in Nigeria. “Surveillance takes place in every nook and cranny of this country, even in those areas that have been free for years.”

The victory in Nigeria did not come easy—and it almost didn’t happen at all. For more than a generation, it has been Rotary that has led the drive to eradicate polio, administering vaccinations to 2.5 billion children in 122 countries at a cost of $1.4 billion. With the help of UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other groups, the effort paid off comparatively fast. As long ago as 2003, the virus had been chased out of all but six countries and the global caseload was down to just 732. There was talk of eradication by as early as 2005.

But Nigeria scuttled those plans. In the summer of 2003, Muslim clerics in the country’s northern regions halted all vaccinations, spreading the fiction that the vaccines contained HIV and were designed to sterilize Muslim girls. Quickly, the poliovirus did what all viruses do when they’re given that kind of running room: it spread, and fast. By 2005, cases consistent with the Nigeria strain were appearing in a 16-nation band that stretched as far away as Indonesia, before the outbreak could finally be contained.

“This is a disease that can’t be controlled,” said WHO spokesman Oliver Rosenbauer at the time, “it has to be eradicated.”

While the current victory in Nigeria was a huge milestone, things remained dicey right to the end—again due to politics—when Boko Haram fighters killed nine polio workers and abducted three others earlier this year. But the vaccine program was already too far along for the attacks to reverse things, and as the July 24 anniversary arrived, victory was at last declared—albeit tentatively.

Nigeria is now officially off the list of endemic countries, but the poliovirus can lurk in sewage and elsewhere, and since there can be up to 200 asymptomatic cases of the disease for every paralytic one, there is no telling how many human virus reservoirs are still at large. Only after two more polio-free years pass will Nigeria be declared officially done with the disease.

That leaves Afghanistan and, most troublingly, Pakistan. Currently, there have been only 33 cases of polio recorded worldwide in 2015—28 in Pakistan and 5 in Afghanistan. At the same point last year, those two countries had already had 107 infections, and the Pakistani strain had turned up in at least six other countries.

Progress has been slowed in Pakistan by often-deadly attacks on polio field workers carried out by local Taliban fighters. Since 2012, however, the government has been providing help, committing its military to protecting the vaccinators and recruiting religious leaders to speak out on the moral imperative of ensuring the health of children.

National pride plays no small role too. India—Pakistan’s mortal rival—has not had a case of polio since 2011 and was declared officially free of the disease last year. That the Indians accomplished this in a country with four times the landmass and seven times the population of Pakistan has been galling to many Pakistanis. The dramatic reduction in new infections in Pakistan from 2014 to 2015 has been a point of national pride.

Protecting children should not, of course, be a matter of international bragging rights. It should just be something human beings do. We’re a species smart enough to have invented a vaccine and brave enough to go delivering it in very dangerous places. The effort to eradicate polio has been a halting thing, and we have too often gotten in our own way. But at last, sometimes despite ourselves, we appear to be on the brink of winning.

TIME vaccines

Why Science Is Winning the Vaccine Wars

Nothing to fear: More and more babies are being protected as more and more parents smarten up
Miodrag Gajic; Getty Images Nothing to fear: More and more babies are being protected as more and more parents smarten up

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

A new survey shows that common sense is trouncing fear-mongering

You can’t poll a scientific fact. The speed of light is the speed of light (186,282.4 miles per second) whether 90% of people believe it, 25% believe it or 100% have no opinion. The same is true for the heaviest element, the size of the Earth and the number of cells that make up the average human body (37.2 trillion, in case you’re counting).

And the same is true, too, for the safety and efficacy of vaccines: They’re extraordinarily effective and extraordinarily safe, no matter what the folks in the anti-vaccine fringe have been saying. But in this case, popular opinion makes a difference—potentially a life and death one. That’s because parents who have bought the anti-vax line are far less likely to vaccinate their children, putting those kids at risk as well as anyone in the community who can’t be vaccinated due to age or a medical problem.

It’s the reason there was an outbreak of vaccine-preventable measles earlier this year triggered by a single unvaccinated visitor to Disneyland, and an outbreak of vaccine-preventable mumps in and around Columbus, Ohio. And it just might be the reason an immune-compromised woman—who relied on the protection that a well-vaccinated community ought to provide its few unvaccinated members—recently died of measles in Washington state, the first U.S. measles death in over a decade.

So it’s the best possible news that a new poll conducted by doctors at the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that across the country, parents’ views on vaccines are changing fast—and for the better.

Assembling a sample group of 1,416 randomly selected parents with at least one child 17 years old or younger, researchers posed a series of questions about the benefits of vaccines, the risks associated with vaccines, and the wisdom of laws, like the one Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed last month, requiring nearly all children attending schools in the state to be fully vaccinated. They also asked about the parents’ perception of the risks of measles and whooping cough.

In all five categories, the parents seemed increasingly to be aligning themselves with the sense and safety of the basic science camp and less with the misinformation and fear-mongering of the anti-vax camp. Overall, only 7% of parents thought vaccines were less safe than they did a year ago, while 25% thought them more safe than they once did; 68% were unchanged. Similarly, only 6% of parents were less supportive of vaccine requirements for students than they used to be, while 35% were more supportive. And 40% and 37% of all parents believed the risk of measles and whooping cough, respectively, have risen for U.S. kids in the past year, while only 15% in both cases thought the danger has decreased.

“For a quarter to a third of parents to say that their views on the safety and benefits of vaccines have shifted in just a year’s time is quite remarkable,” Dr. Matthew Davis, the director of the poll, said in a statement.

Actually, it’s more than remarkable. It also confirms what a lot of health-policy experts have been saying for a long time—that once parents started seeing the consequences of vaccine denialism in the form of flash-point epidemics like the Disneyland and Columbus outbreaks, they would come rushing back for the protection vaccines offer. An epidemic of any illness may be a terrible way to learn a lesson, but it’s a decidedly effective one.

Davis partly credits media coverage of the epidemics for helping parents wise up. That’s not just because of the reasonably responsible way news outlets reported the outbreaks, but also because of they way they’ve been edging away from the nonsense coming from anti-vaccine celebrities like Jim Carrey. Yes, Carrey got more press attention than he deserved after the vaccine law was approved in California, when he called Brown a “corporate fascist” and proceeded to recycle old myths about the dangers of mercury in vaccines. But he was also blow-torched for his know-nothingism in both mainstream and social media—a sign that the popular consensus is changing. The same kind of global opprobrium has at last caused Jenny McCarthy—the anti-vaxxers’ Earth mother—to go dark on the topic of vaccines altogether.

None of this means the vaccine fight is over—and it never will be as long as there is an Internet and an anti-vax community willing to fill it with silliness. But as the new poll suggests, that community is steadily growing smaller, and a larger community of parents committed to protecting the health of their children is taking its place.

Science, which has never sought to be a popularity contest, is winning this one all the same.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME health

This Is What Happened to the First Person to Get the Rabies Vaccine

Joseph Meister
Apic/Getty Images Joseph Meister, who received inoculation of the rabies vaccine from Pasteur in july 1885

He received his inoculation directly from Louis Pasteur, on July 6, 1885

Rabies is among the most terrifying viruses to get. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “once clinical signs of rabies appear, the disease is nearly always fatal.” (Really: there have been fewer than 10 documented cases of survival once symptoms appear.) Luckily for us—and our pets—Louis Pasteur developed a vaccine that can stop things from getting to that point.

The first time the vaccine was ever administered to a human being–on this day in 1885–was by Pasteur himself. Knowing that the disease was otherwise fatal, both doctor and patient (or, rather, patient’s mother) were willing to risk whatever harm might come from the injection, which had only been tested on dogs.

As TIME recounted in 1939:

One hot July morning in 1885, feverish little Joseph Meister was dragged by his frantic mother through the streets of Paris in search of an unknown scientist who, according to rumors, could prevent rabies. For nine-year-old Joseph had been bitten in 14 places by a huge, mad dog and in a desperate attempt to cheat death, his mother had fled from their home town in Alsace to Paris. Early in the afternoon Mme Meister met a young physician in a hospital. “You mean Pasteur,” he said. “I’ll take you there.”

Bacteriologist Louis Pasteur, who kept kennels of mad dogs in a crowded little laboratory and was hounded by medical criticism, had never tried his rabies vaccine on a human being before. But moved by the tears of Mme Meister, he finally took the boy to the Hotel-Dieu, had him injected with material from the spinal cord of a rabbit that had died from rabies. For three weeks Pasteur watched anxiously at the boy’s bedside. To his overwhelming joy, the boy recovered.

By that fall, when his nation’s Academy of Sciences acknowledged the success, “hundreds of persons who had been bitten by mad dogs rushed to his laboratory.”

As for Meister? He ended up working as a janitor at the Pasteur Institute. There, TIME reported, Meister regaled visitors with tales of his time as the pioneering doctor’s patient: “I shall see always Pasteur’s good face focused on me,” he told them. He committed suicide in 1940, shortly after Germany invaded France—though, contrary to a prevalent myth, there is no evidence that he did so because he would rather die than allow the Nazis into the Institute.

TIME vaccines

Jim Carrey, Please Shut Up About Vaccines

Actor Jim Carrey arrives at LACMA's 50th Anniversary Gala at LACMA on April 18, 2015 in Los Angeles.
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin—Getty Images Actor Jim Carrey arrives at LACMA's 50th Anniversary Gala at LACMA on April 18, 2015 in Los Angeles.

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

The erstwhile Ace Ventura sounds off about vaccines. Spoiler alert: he's wrong

Say this for the anti-vax clown car: it never seems to run out of new punchinellos to climb inside. If it’s not scientific fabulist Andrew Wakefield, he of the fraudulent study that got the whole vaccine-autism myth started, it’s Jenny McCarthy, she of the supposedly vaccine-injured son whose autism was cured in part by—yes!—a gluten-free diet because, um, gluten is bad, very bad.

After McCarthy, there was Saturday Night Live alum Rob Schneider—because when you’re looking for guidance on the wisdom of vaccines, who are you going to trust: the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health, or the man who gave us Deuce Bigelow, Male Gigolo? I mean, hello, the movie was huge.

Now, to this group of board-certified jesters add Jim Carrey—the ex-Mr. Jenny McCarthy—who rose on July 1 in all his orange-wigged, floppy-shoed, seltzer-down-the-pants fury to condemn California Governor Jerry Brown for the high crime of common sense, after Brown signed a law that requires virtually all kids in the state to be fully vaccinated as a pre-condition for attending public school. Carrey took—no surprise—to Twitter to air his peer-reviewed views.

“California Gov says yes to poisoning more children with mercury and aluminum in manditory [sic] vaccines. This corporate fascist must be stopped,” said the erstwhile Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. That was followed by:

“They say mercury in fish is dangerous but forcing all of our children to be injected with mercury in thimerosol [sic] is no risk. Make sense?” Which was followed by:

“I am not anti-vaccine. I am anti-thimerosal, anti-mercury. They have taken some of the mercury laden thimerosal out of vaccines. NOT ALL!”

And there was more too, but really, it doesn’t matter. Never mind that Carrey does not understand the difference between ethylmercury and methylmercury or the fact that there is virtually no mercury of any kind left in vaccines. Never mind that he doesn’t seem to know that to the extent that aluminum is in vaccines at all, it is there only as an adjuvant—or immune system stimulant—and is well-handled by the body, especially in the trace amounts that it’s found in vaccines. And never mind too that if you’re going for the ad hominem attack—a staple of anti-vaxxers—calling a man like Jerry Brown, better known as Governor Moonbeam, a “fascist” is a bit wide of the argumentative mark.

The anti-vax crowd has never been about reasoned argument or a cool-headed look at clinical science. They’ve been all about rage, all about echo-chamber misinformation. For every sensible action to boost vaccination rates, they have long been there, like a sort of perverse bit of Newtonian physics, with an equal and risible reaction.

Maybe that’s the reason they roll out pratfall comics like Schneider and Carrey to plead their case—a bit of misdirection to hide the tragicomedy of their message behind the larger comedy of the messenger. Or maybe they’re the best they’ve got.

That matters. A movement that begins with a study conducted by a doctor so thoroughly discredited that he’s not even allowed to practice medicine in his native United Kingdom anymore (Wakefield) and takes flight thanks to the prattlings of a Playboy model and talk show guest (McCarthy) ought not to have a chance against the informed scientific opinion of virtually every medical group on Earth. That it does says something about the hucksters’ ability to sell their nonsense and the human tendency to pay more attention to famous but wrong-headed people than to unglamorous but smart ones.

But that’s finally changing. The anti-vax act has at last gotten old, and it’s gotten tired and the cost—sick children, lost school days, outbreaks of diseases like measles, mumps and whooping cough—has gotten too high.

Like all fringe groups eventually do, the anti-vaxxers are now entering their rump-faction stage, dwindling to an angry, dense, immune-to-reason core. Soon enough, they’ll be gone. The likes of Carrey—today’s foghorn, tomorrow’s footnote—will vanish with them. And America’s children—not for nothing—will be better for it.

Read next: California Governor Jerry Brown Signs Mandatory Vaccine Law

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TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME public health

California Governor Jerry Brown Signs Mandatory Vaccine Law

Law abolishes exemptions for personal beliefs

California Governor Jerry Brown signed a mandatory school vaccination bill into law Tuesday, abolishing the “personal belief” exemption that many parents use as a loophole to avoid vaccinating their children.

Now, under California law, which is among the strictest in the country, children would not be able to enroll in public school unless they have been vaccinated against diseases like measles and whooping cough. The law includes an exemption for children who have a medical reason to remain unvaccinated (like an immune system disorder) and can prove it with a doctor’s note. Parents who decline to vaccinate their children for personal or religious reasons will have to home-school them or send them to a public independent study program off school grounds.

Students who are unvaccinated because of “personal belief” who are already in public elementary school can stay until they’re in 7th grade, and then the parents will either have to vaccinate them or home-school them. Daycare students can stay until kindergarten, when they have to be either vaccinated or home-schooled. In the fall of 2014, almost 3% of California kindergartners were unvaccinated because of personal belief. Preschools in the most affluent areas are also the least likely to vaccinate, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The bill was proposed after a measles outbreak at Disneyland infected more 150 people, and many needed to be hospitalized. Supporters of the law argue that it is based on medical consensus that vaccinations improve public health. Opponents—who have been picketing outside the California legislature—argue that it’s an attack on personal freedom.

TIME vaccines

Why Jerry Brown Was Right to Sign the California Vaccine Bill

Bad choice: Anti-vaxxers protesting the California vaccine bill
Rich Pedroncelli—AP Bad choice: Anti-vaxxers protesting the California vaccine bill

Jeffrey Kluger is Editor at Large for TIME.

The governor had a chance to protect thousands of children—and he did

Updated: June 30, 2015, 2:32 PM EDT

California does not often make common cause with Mississippi and West Virginia. America’s blue-red divide doesn’t come any wider than it does between the liberal laboratory of the Pacific West and the conservative cornerstones of the old south. But with a single signature on a single bill, California Gov. Jerry Brown ensured that the largest state in the nation joined the two far smaller ones in what ought to be a simple, primal mission: keeping children healthy.

The law, which passed the California legislature with bipartisan majorities, does a straightforward job—removing the religious and personal belief exemptions that allowed parents to refuse to vaccinate their children. The legislation leaves standing the medical exemption—the waiver families receive when a child has a manifest medical condition like a compromised immune system that would make vaccines dangerous. Under the new rules, families without the medical waiver face a choice: get your kids the shots or prepare to home-school them, which ensures they get an education but protects other children from whatever pathogens they may be carrying.

Mississippi and West Virginia are the only other states in the country that currently have such no-nonsense rules and they’ve got the stellar vaccination rates to prove it: fully 99.9% of the states’ kids are up to date on all their shots. California was right to follow the example of those southern-fried smarts. Only 90.4% of the Golden State’s kindergarteners had their full complement of vaccinations in the 2014-2015 school year. The worst offenders are the parents in the too-rich, too-famous, too-smart by half provinces of Silicon Valley, where vaccination rates in some day care centers struggle to crack the 50% mark.

That matters—a lot. When vaccine coverage falls below 95%, communities begin to lose what’s known as herd immunity, the protection a fully inoculated population provides to the relative handful of its members who can’t be vaccinated. California has suffered the consequences of that, with outbreaks of whooping cough and mumps across the state. Earlier this year, more than 100 cases of measles in California and Mexico were traced to a single unvaccinated visitor to Disneyland. That outbreak, at one of the state’s most iconic destinations, at last got Sacramento’s attention, and the new law, though hotly debated, passed.

Brown was vague at first about whether he would sign the bill and that left a lot of health policy experts worried. He had signed an earlier bill that preserved the personal belief exemption but at least made it harder for families to claim one. No longer could parents simply check a box on a form—an awfully easy thing to do without giving the matter much thought. Under the previous law, they would have to visit a health care provider who would sign a statement confirming that the parents had been informed of the benefits (too many to enumerate) and the risks (vanishingly small) of vaccination. Once they’re in the doctor’s office, plenty of parents come around. But Brown, a one-time Jesuit seminarian who has made no secret of his spiritual side over the years, carved out an exception in that law for religious beliefs.

He was right not to make the same mistake this time. There was a time when religious exemptions were no cause for worry. The share of Americans whose faith forbids vaccinations is exceedingly small, and as long as the herd remained intact, those kids would remain safe. But that was before the nonsense factory of the anti-vaccine community went into operation, churning out all manner of misinformation about autism and brain damage and big pharma conspiring with big government to inject unsuspecting children with toxins. The result: Vaccine rates have plummeted nationwide, and children have paid the price.

The tension between religious liberty and civic responsibility is hardly a new issue in the American system. If your religion does no harm to anyone else—least of all kids—you ought to be free to practice it in peace. But if that faith requires prayer to treat pediatric cancer or laying on of hands as a cure for severe pneumonia, the state ought to be able to intervene and provide proper care if you won’t and prosecute you if your child is injured or killed. In some states that’s indeed possible but in others it’s not, and a complex patchwork governs the level of care each state will or won’t mandate.

Mandatory testing for lead levels in blood? OK in most places, but not if you live in Delaware, Maine, Kansas, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island, where religious exemptions are available. Mandatory eyedrops to help prevent blindness in newborns? An important preventive for kids born to mothers with certain kinds of STDs—but they may be out of luck if they’re born in Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, or Pennsylvania.

The kids, it’s worth noting, did not choose to be born in states with weak protections. And they don’t choose either to be born to parents who look at vaccines and see in them something sinister or dangerous or strangely unholy.

Anti-vax parents came into a world of medically rational adults who had seen the wages of polio or diphtheria or smallpox or whooping cough and were grateful for a preventive that could eliminate those horrors. Jerry Brown himself came into that world too. Contemporary children deserve the same kind of wisdom and the same kind of care the grown-ups around them enjoyed. And California children deserve a governor who will see to it that that they get it.

Today Brown lived up to that responsibility.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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