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Why aren’t we more scared of measles?
Andrew Maynard   Sep 11, 2014   Risk Science  

Measles is one of the leading causes of death amongst children worldwide.  In 2012, an estimated 122,000 people died of the disease according to the World Health Organization – equivalent to 14 deaths every hour.  Yet talk to parents about this highly infectious disease, and the response is often a resounding “meh”.  Why is this?


University of Michigan Professor Brian Zikmund-Fisher explores this in the latest video from Risk Bites – at under 3 minutes long, it’s a fantastic introduction to why seemingly rational people sometimes behave the way they do toward vaccines.

According to Zikmund-Fisher, how we think about infectious diseases and risk is governed in part by the way our memories and feelings inform our perceptions – this is referred to by psychologists as the “availability heuristic”.  It turns out that when we try and figure out how rare or common a disease is, we try to think of people we have heard of who have had it.  If we know of people, we’re pre-programmed to feel more at risk than if we don’t.  And surprisingly, the statistics – the actual numbers of people who get sick – don’t seem to matter.

You can watch Brian’s video and others on the science behind human health risks at  Brian can also be seen talking about risk, feelings and vaccines in the new NOVA documentary Vaccines – Calling The Shots, airing Wednesday September 10 at 9:30/8:30C.

Andrew Maynard is Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

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