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by Steve Heilig, April 17, 2014
Vaccination is one of history's most significant health advances. But California has had outbreaks of measles and pertussis in the past year. California also has a rising number of children not vaccinated for such diseases. Unsurprisingly, experts say these trends are linked — and such trends are worsening. Right here in Mendocino County, dim young, internet-influenced parents are not vaccinating.
Some kids are not vaccinated as their parents fear they might not be able to afford the vaccine — which has too often been poorly reimbursed or not covered by insurance at all. Some might not have easy access to health care. A relative few feel vaccination is against their religion — the stated reason for an available exemption to mandated vaccination requirements to enter schooling.
But the primary factor in the more recent increase in parents' not having their kids vaccinated seems to be fears about risks of vaccines — especially increased autism. While that and other fears have been discredited in the scientific world, misinformation still spreads widely via the internet and in social settings. Among die-hard anti-vaccine activists, no amount of evidence suffices to change their minds and actions. There is a long and well-documented history of anti-vaccine sentiment going back over a century, with conspiracy theories and mistrust a common theme — in our time, those providing vaccines are even being murdered in some nations.
In our arena, doctors are accused of profiteering — even though preventing illness via vaccines actually cuts into their billable services, and vaccines are poorly reimbursed, often even provided at a loss. Health professionals have struggled to develop effective, convincing messages to counter anti-vaccine sentiment. A recently-enacted California law requires that parents be told about vaccines by a health professional before not having their kid vaccinated — but some of those professionals are not doctors or nurses and too easily accede to parental fears. So still the cohort of parents not letting their kids be vaccinated persists. Some research shows that this is a most commonly a phenomenon of both the lowest and highest socioeconomic levels — poor folks and rich folks, basically. The poorer folks have the reasons above; the richer ones have no real excuse other than willful ignorance, stoked by the media appearances of such anti-vaccine spokesmodels as Playboy playmate Jenny McCarthy — an undeniably bizarre source for medical “expertise” (although some non-expert figures also weigh in on the side of vaccination — try an online search for comedian/magicians Penn and Teller and “vaccines,” for example).
In any event, much of the mistrust and misinformation about vaccines is spread among parents. Parental peer pressure can be powerful. When head lice are found in a school, alerts to parents can be an effective tool in battling the problem; parents who do not address the issue and let their infested kids come to school anyway are objects of severe scorn. For this far more serious issue, health professionals could do more to harness that power in favor of vaccines. The large majority of parents still do trust their pediatricians and other doctors and do vaccinate their kids. Not enough know that the decision by a minority of parents not to vaccinate can put all kids at risk — especially when the percentage of kids vaccinated falls beneath that needed for what is called “herd immunity.”
Thus, this modest proposal: At any school where unvaccinated children are enrolled, parents could be warned — and urged to take action by urging the parents of those children to heed both science and public responsibility and have their kids vaccinated. A poster such as that below could be posted at schools, parent/teacher meetings, and mailed to parents. It just might help. There are limits to freedom, especially when that “freedom” endangers others, and even one's own children. So even though enlisting other parents to provide peer pressure on the side of public health might be construed by some as “public shaming,” isn't that sometimes justified when behavior can justifiably be called shameful?
Warning To Parents:
Your child is now attending school with some students who are not vaccinated against serious diseases. When a significant percentage of children are unvaccinated, that can put not only those children but also your own children at increased risks of such diseases.
Please talk to other parents about this important problem, both at school and before playdates and other such gatherings outside of school settings. This is doubly important if you have other younger children at home, especially infants or other preschool children who could be exposed.
Three important facts:
(1) The numbers of unvaccinated children are increasing, after decades of vaccines lowering disease among children. In many areas, some of this drop in vaccination is due to parental choice, especially due to fears about vaccine safety.
(2) This increases outbreaks of communicable diseases, with more sick and even dying children than before. Your children could be at increase risk, even if vaccinated, including at play-dates and after-school events. This is a more serious problem than alerts about head lice that parents receive and respond to.
(3) Vaccines do not cause diseases, including autism or other such conditions. Pediatricians and other doctors love their own children too — and have them vaccinated.
Please talk with your pediatrician and/or local public health authorities about this problem.
For more information on vaccinations, from doctors, see the American Academy of Pediatrics:
For the safety and health of all — please have your children vaccinated and urge other parents to do the same!