Telling stories of vaccine-preventable diseases: why it works

S D Med. 2013;Spec no:21-6.


In this paper, we explore the benefits of storytelling in health communication and, in particular, immunization education. During the mid-20th century polio epidemic, both personal stories and scientific information abounded in the media. However, as rates of vaccine-preventable diseases declined, narratives about the dangers of such diseases faded as did the public fear of them. Meanwhile, anti-vaccine advocates flooded the media and Internet with stories of injured children and tied those injuries, such as autism, to vaccines. Medical experts often counter anti-vaccine concerns with scientific information which can fail to persuade parents. Furthermore, evidence suggests that many people misunderstand quantitative information resulting in a misinterpretation of risk. Compared to scientific information, stories relate life lessons and values. They are effective because they are memorable and relatable. Evidence also suggests that storytelling can effectively improve health knowledge and behaviors. Inspired by In Harm's Way--True Stories of Uninsured Texas Children by the Children's Defense Fund and Faces of Influenza by the American Lung Association, we published Vaccine-Preventable Disease: The Forgotten Story, a collection of photographs and personal stories of families affected by vaccine-preventable diseases. We have found that the stories included in our booklet capture all the benefits of storytelling. Given the many benefits of storytelling, providers should strive to include stories along with medical facts in their daily practice.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Delivery of Health Care / methods*
  • Health Education / methods*
  • Humans
  • Infection Control / methods*
  • Mass Media*
  • United States
  • Vaccination*