Photo from The Daily Times, Maryville, Tennessee
A few years ago, I wrote an article for a community newsletter about the dangers of not getting vaccines. At that time, the concern was about parents who feared autism. There were few outbreaks of measles then and nothing like what we are seeing today. As a nurse practitioner, I knew the consequences of increasing numbers of children not getting vaccinated. It was only a matter of time before we saw those consequences in the form of disease outbreaks.
I’m afraid the medical community has not done enough to help people understand the importance of vaccinations, not only for children but adults as well. In a busy medical office, it is easier to sign a form allowing a parent to avoid vaccines for religious/other reasons than to take the time explaining why vaccines are important. We are also fighting the conspiracy theorists who paint health care providers as the bad guys for selling vaccines “just to make money”. It is sad that we have come to this point.
Just like the myth about autism that spread like wildfire, the healthcare community should have been armed with buckets and hoses to put the fire out. No one stepped up in a strong enough voice to say “Don’t believe it. It is not true.” Instead, the myth became well entrenched, successfully drowning out the paltry response from those who knew better.
Looking back, in my view, there should have been a coordinated effort between health care providers and government agencies to educate the public in a robust, ongoing manner to counter the myth of vaccine induced autism. We heard from the big players, namely, the Centers for Disease Control and the FDA, but it was too little, too late. For the vaccine naysayers, it did not matter. They did not trust government agencies or their messages.
And then there are those who do not trust the message because they do not believe the science. Never mind that it is the same science that placed us as health care providers who determine your medical fate. Somewhere along the way the public started believing that science was a hoax. They have seen too many medical mistakes, frauds, and a dysfunctional health care system that costs too much and does not fully serve the customer. Why should they believe?
In some respects, what we see in vaccine avoidance is consistent with how the public views other areas of their health. They have given up on mainstream medicine. We see this in the use of herbals and supplements, a billion-dollar industry, and in those seeking a cure and willing to travel a thousand miles for a cancer treatment they heard would work. There are plenty of so called “cures” that have no science behind them. But people gravitate to them because, well, they are not mainstream. And that’s fine with them.
If you are my age you remember at least one or two kids in school who were crippled because of polio. You may recall one or two more who developed mental disabilities or deafness from measles. I remember. But I doubt I can convince a 30 something year old mother to get her kids vaccinated for a problem she has never seen. Telling her that measles can cause serious damage comes across as scare tactics that do not seem as real as autism, something she sees every day. If the measles epidemic continues, she and others may gain a new perspective on what those diseases can do. Hopefully, it will be enough to change hearts and minds of those who avoid vaccines. Watching a child develop a serious illness is a high price to pay for knowledge.
There will always be the suspicious who will never do what we say and will always refuse vaccines. But the health of the public is everyone’s business. All we need is to get our herd immunity back so that the majority is safe from outbreaks. Herd immunity means that at least 80% of the population must be vaccinated against a communicable disease to prevent an outbreak. The 20% who will never be convinced can stay that way and still reap the benefits of disease control. We in the health care system need to do a better job educating the public about what is best for the public. We have let the system get out of control on many fronts. Working to get the public’s trust back should be our first order of business. It can mean the difference between managing an epidemic or finally convincing a parent that the benefits of a vaccine outweighs the negatives.
What is herd immunity?