Forbes (Jersey City, NJ), February 3, 2015
Olivia was 7 years old when she caught the measles. She seemed to be recovering when the disease took a turn. She felt sleepy. Her fingers and her mind weren’t working together. The measles had triggered encephalitis, an acute inflammation of the brain. “In an hour she was unconscious. In twelve hours she was dead,” her father, the children’s book author Roald Dahl, once wrote.
Olivia contracted the measles in 1962, before the measles vaccine was available to the public. By the year 2000, measles was eliminated in the US. Today it’s coming back.
Storytelling matters and, in many cases, it can mean the difference between life and death. The controversy over the measles vaccine is an example of what can happen when leaders in a particular field — the healthcare community in this case — begin to lose control of the narrative.
As you know, America is seeing a small, but growing number of parents who are choosing not to vaccinate their children against measles. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the White House are not taking any chances. Appearing on The Today Show, President Barack Obama called the science “indisputable.” According to Obama, “We’ve looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren’t reasons to not … you should get your kids vaccinated.” Obama urged parents to “look at the science, look at the facts.”
The fact that vaccines save lives might be indisputable, but the problem is we have too many facts and too few stories .
Olivia’s story was published on a British site called the Vaccine Knowledge Project, an initiative funded by the Oxford Biomedical Research Center. The information is “designed with a non-specialist in mind.” The people behind the site know that ‘non-specialists’ relate to stories, which is the why the site is stuffed with heart-wrenching stories of individuals who suffer from measles.
If you watch the videos, you will see the story of Sarah Clow who was not vaccinated against measles as a child. The measles attacked her entire body, including her brain. She was in a coma for eight weeks and is now deaf and partially blind.
You will see the story of Sarah Walton who caught the measles when she was 11 months old. Although she recovered, Sarah contracted a viral infection connected to her measles 24 years later. It destroyed her central nervous system.
As an expert in the spread of diseases, Melinda Gates knows facts. She also knows how to deliver facts effectively by wrapping them in story. “Women in the developing world know the power of vaccines,” she told the Huffington Post. “They will walk 10 kilometers in the heat with their child and line up to get a vaccine because they have seen death. We’ve forgotten what measles deaths look like … but in Africa, the women know death and they want their children to survive.”