Lesson Plan

Influencing Public Policy: Vaccines


This 12-minute video shows how fear of vaccines were fed by flawed research. It is useful for lessons focused on the challenges of the 21st century, or for lessons in how interest groups influence policy making. As a case study illustrating false equivalency, the importance of clear public health messaging and the impact of emotional stories on the public, this video can be used to teach journalism.


  • How a persistent minority of Americans came to question the vaccine science.
  • How the language used by scientists, the tools used by news media, and scientific fraud have encouraged public questioning of vaccine science.
  • How questioning of vaccine science led to a recent outbreak of measles.
  • Social Studies
  • Media/News Literacy
  • Civics & Government
  • Journalism
  • Science
  • Media Literacy
  • Public Health
  • Smallpox
  • Polio
  • Coronavirus
  • 1980s America
  • The Modern Era (1980-Present)
  • 21st Century
For Teachers

Introducing the Lesson

Vaccines have long been considered one of the most important advances in public health, from the first vaccine for smallpox in 1796, to Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine in 1955.

So why do diseases like measles that we thought had been eradicated keep reappearing? And why does the vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella generate controversy, even though its safety has been proven repeatedly? Skepticism and fears surrounding vaccines were fed by a flawed study done in 1998. The study was quickly discredited, but years later, we’re still dealing with the repercussions.

Dr. Andrew Wakefield, a British gastroenterologist, published a paper in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet, noting a possible connection between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Wakefield urged that MMR immunization be suspended until more research could be done. Some news outlets quickly picked up the story and ran with it, raising alarm among parents of young children.

A series of investigations in England concluded that Wakefield had falsified results in his paper, and had produced no evidence connecting the MMR vaccine to autism. The Lancet withdrew the article. Wakefield was barred from practicing medicine in 2010.

These facts did little to slow a building movement across the United States and Europe by people who insisted that the MMR vaccine was unsafe.

The movement was fed by erroneous news reports that created a false equivalency between a parent’s experience and scientific consensus. This misstep has become more clear over time: Studies on tens and thousands of children have found no connection between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Now, as scientists around the globe race to discover a vaccine for Covid-19, it is critical to remember the lessons from this episode.

Essential Questions

  • Why are vaccines often a victim of their own success?
  • What role did Dr. Andrew Wakefield play in encouraging public skepticism of vaccines?
  • How has the language of science created confusion about vaccines?
  • What role has the news media played in spreading misinformation about vaccines?

Lesson Procedure

  • How have diseases like measles shaped American history? Try to think of three instances in which diseases changed the course of history. Could that be happening now with Covid-19?
  • Looking back at history, how do you think a Covid-19 vaccine would be received?
  • Has the U.S. entered into a period in which empiricism and science are less important to the public than they once were? Why is it hard to define historical trends and periods while you are living through them?
  • The new movement towards vaccine skepticism has coincided with the rise of the internet. Is this correlation a coincidence? Is there something about the culture and structure of the internet that might nurture extreme or anti-scientific movements?
  • Nearly all scientists who specialize in vaccine research believe in the safety and value of vaccines, but some citizens still refuse vaccines for themselves or their children. Are there any other examples, either historically or in modern times, in which a significant portion of the public openly opposed the consensus of the scientific community?

Additional Resources

Transcript for "How Fear of the Measles Vaccine Took Hold"Retro Report 
“A Discredited Vaccine Study’s Continuing Impact on Public Health” Retro Report 
Audio Interview: "The Origins of The Anti-Vaccine Movement" WNYC 

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Evaluate the consequences of human-made and natural catastrophes on global trade, politics, and human migration.

Skill 5.B: Explain how a historical development relates to another historical development.

Theme 8: Social Structures (SOC)

Questions? Tips? Concerns? Reach out to our Director of Education, David Olson: dolson@retroreport.com