We have good news and bad news. The good news is that, according to a recent study from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), parents are beginning to let go of the harmful and wildly inaccurate idea that vaccines cause autism. The bad news is that even more people refuse to vaccinate their kids; it’s just that their reasons are changing. 

The AAP conducted phone surveys of more than 600 doctors in 2006 and 2013 to learn about the conversations parents and pediatricians were having about vaccination. Ten years ago, 75 percent of respondents said they’d encountered parents opposed to vaccination. By 2013, that number was up to 87 percent. The number of parents citing autism fears has declined, but more parents told their pediatricians that vaccines were simply “unnecessary.” 

This is, to put it mildly, dangerously wrong. Vaccines are the single greatest reason that children in the U.S. can now expect to live past their fifth birthday. They’ve allowed us to eradicate certain diseases and massively reduce outbreaks of others. They’re drastically lowering the rates of certain cancers. But they only work if we use them, and use them widely. 

Pediatricians vaccinate their patients not only to protect those children, but to protect their entire community, especially infants and the elderly, who may have compromised immune systems. Refusing to vaccinate a child risks that child’s life and the lives of everyone around them. 

But it’s far from a lost cause. Respondents to both the 2006 and 2013 surveys said that talking to parents yielded a change of mind in 30 percent of parents who originally refused to vaccinate. And the more the doctors and the families talked, the more likely parents were to shift their stance.

Lolita McDavid is medical director of child advocacy and protection at the University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. She was unaffiliated with the AAP study but said the findings were unsurprising. In some ways, vaccines are a victim of their own success. Decades of vaccination have made many causes of child mortality things of the past, so people fail to recognize the real danger posed by a lack of vaccination. 

“In the past, people were scared of polio and whooping cough,” she told ABC News, “but parents aren’t now because they don’t see it anymore. It’s a very uninformed way to approach a child’s health.”

To bring this point home, McDavid sends vaccine-averse parents home with an assignment: “I want you to go to an old cemetery, walk through, look at the headstones of the babies that died at age 1, 2, 3 years of age.”

Vaccinations are mandatory for public school attendance in most parts of the country, but many states include an opt-out for parents who object on the basis of religion or other beliefs. The AAP released its survey results this week as part of a call for public health officials to eliminate all vaccine exemptions except those that are medically necessary. 

“It’s the right thing to do,” said Yvonne A. Maldonado, vice chair of the AAP Committee on Infectious Diseases. “We have to protect children if we have the means to do so.”

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