ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
An outbreak of measles in Washington and Oregon has refocused attention on parents who choose not to vaccinate their kids, often known as anti-vaxxers. Public health advocates have struggled to change these parents' minds. One South Carolina woman has a different approach. She is reaching out to people before they even become parents. Alex Olgin of member station WFAE has the story.
ALEX OLGIN, BYLINE: In 2017, Kim Nelson had just moved her family back to her hometown in South Carolina. Moving boxes were still scattered around. While her two young daughters played, Nelson scrolled through a newspaper article on her phone. It said religious exemptions for vaccines had jumped nearly 70 percent in recent years in their part of the state, around Greenville. She yelled to her husband in the other room.
KIM NELSON: David, you have to get in here. I can't believe this because, you know, I just - all my mom friends had vaccinated. I'd never encountered somebody who didn't.
OLGIN: Nelson had her immunizations, and so did her kids. But this news scared her. She didn't want anyone in her hometown to get sick. Nelson decided she had to do something.
NELSON: I very much believe that if you have the ability to advocate, then you have to. The onus is on us if we want change.
OLGIN: Like a lot of moms, Nelson had spent hours online. And she knew how easy it was to fall down an Internet hole into the world of fake studies and scary stories.
NELSON: As somebody who just cannot stand wrong things being on the Internet, if I saw something with vaccines, I was very quick to chime in, that's not true, or no, that's not how that works. I usually got banned.
OLGIN: Nelson started her own group for South Carolina parents. She began posting scientific articles online, but then she thought it would be best to zero in on moms that were still on the fence about vaccines.
NELSON: It's easier to pull a hesitant parent over than it is somebody who is firmly anti-vax. They feel validated by that choice. It's part of their community. It's part of their identity.
OLGIN: And the most important thing was timing - reaching moms during pregnancy when they're actually going online to figure out how to keep their babies healthy. Nelson latched onto one study that showed 90 percent of expectant women have made up their minds on vaccines by the time they were six months pregnant. After that, it's kind of too late.
NELSON: They're not going to a pediatrician. Their OBGYN is probably not speaking to the pediatric vaccine schedule. So where are they going? They're going online.
OLGIN: Before parents got bad information, Nelson would be there first with facts - online, but also in person. She rented out a room at the public library and advertised on mom forums. She was nervous that the anti-vaxxers might show up.
NELSON: Are they here to rip me a new one, or are they here to learn about vaccines? And I just decided if they're here, I'm going to give them good information.
OLGIN: Amy Morris was pregnant, but she drove an hour and a half to attend the class. It wasn't her first pregnancy. She already had three kids. But this time around, she was nervous about vaccines. In Nelson's class, she learned the risks of not vaccinating.
AMY MORRIS: That spoke to me more than anything.
OLGIN: Now, holding her healthy 8-month-old son Thorin on her lap, she says she's glad she went because she was feeling vulnerable.
MORRIS: I always knew it was the right thing to do. I was listening to that fear monster in the back of my head.
OLGIN: Nelson says that fear is what the anti-vaccine community feeds on. She's learned to ask questions to help parents get at the root of their anxiety.
NELSON: I do think they appreciate it when you meet them sympathetically, and you don't just try to blast facts down their throat.
OLGIN: Nelson is now trying to get local hospitals to integrate that vaccine talk into their birthing classes. And she's studying for a master's in public health and even considering a run for office. For NPR News, I'm Alex Olgin in Greenville, S.C.
SHAPIRO: And this story is part of a partnership between NPR, Kaiser Health News and WFAE.
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