Let’s Talk about Vax, Baby #NaBloPoMo

I’m a public health wonk.

For over a decade, I’ve fought the good fight against Big Tobacco, Big Junk Food, and more recently, Big Guns. I love being able to work for social justice and health equality, while sticking it to big corporations.

So many industries profit by putting our health at risk. This is most clearly seen in environmental pollution, but it’s really the same thing with many everyday products. Tobacco and obesity are the two leading causes of death in our nation, underlying most heart disease, cancers, and diabetes.

Actual causes of death
Source: Wikipedia, based on CDC data

No Shame, No Blame

Another thing I love about my work is that it’s not focused on urging individuals to make a big health change. It’s focused on changing the world around us and making it a healthier place.

And yes, while change can only be successful if it is motivated from within, it can only be maintained if it is supported from without. That’s why policies like smoke-free worksites and healthy vending make such a huge difference in supporting people’s ability to quit smoking or eat better. If left to the profiteers, we wouldn’t have many healthy options to choose from. 

Socioecological Model Health
Source: C-Change

It has also been really exciting, challenging, and fun to work through media, community partners, and advocates to get legislators to stand up for the people and pass laws that support health. You can create huge, long-lasting changes with a small budget if you join with community members to create news and visit legislators.

All that being said, I used to think the field of Immunizations was unbelievably boring.

Getting people to get their shots? Boring. Sending out letters to families if they don’t meet the deadline for their school-kids to get their shots? Boring. Creating brochures and posters about vaccines? Boring.Boring.Boring.

Then I became a mom.

And then I became a mom involved in Facebook conversations about parenting. And oh boy, I do NOT think vaccines are a boring subject anymore!

Who knew they were so controversial? Who knew they were a litmus test for your parenting style? Who knew people were hosting chicken pox parties? Who knew vaccines were the stuff of extended, heated, hateful debates; memes; books; blogs; and major news stories?

Turns out, I live in the state that has the highest rate of exemptions from vaccinations.

And guess what? We are having disease outbreaks. And guess what? Disease outbreaks for things like whooping cough tend to be clustered in areas with the highest exemption rates.  Suddenly, it’s not so boring anymore. It’s not like choosing whether to cloth or paper diaper. It’s about life and death.

Vaccine Preventable Disease Forbes
Source: Forbes

The 100 Day Cough

A recent article in the New Republic gives a personal account of a journalist’s experience with the Pertussis/ Whooping Cough. It’s worth a read. So many of us are completely unfamiliar with what vaccine-preventable diseases are like.

Unfortunately, it does something I see all too frequently in this debate: blaming and polarizing people who’ve chosen not to vaccinate.

This approach will never compel people to change their minds. Stories are good. Videos and images of babies and children suffering from measles and mumps are good. Spreading stories of real families’ experiences with the flu and meningitis and chicken pox, which can lead to all sorts of other infections, is good. Pointing fingers is not. Pointing fingers never gets us anywhere. Blame does not motivate.

Calls for social responsibility might motivate some people, as “crunchy mom” Sydney Steiner shares on her excellent blog. But I’m afraid that it’s going to take a great number of people experiencing these old-fashioned diseases first-hand before we will see the pendulum swing back. We need to inject our social media with stories about infectious diseases. We need to inoculate people with real, human, emotional stories, buffered with facts. <Insert joke about going viral here>

This new area in public health is a bit different for me.

Unlike Big Tobacco, it’s the pharmaceutical companies that are the good guys here. But that doesn’t mean somebody isn’t making money off this debate. There are plenty of people who are perfectly happy to make a profit off selling books, essential oils, and supplements. This gives the appearance of a community-driven, grassroots, counter-culture movement led by doctors sticking up for the little guy. But it’s not. It’s a fear-based, profit-driven game.

These profiteers are not health heroes. They are not martyrs who will someday be shown to have been correct all along. They are the snake oil salesmen of our time. But instead of traveling from town to town to sell their wares, they spread their message through social media. And they are just as savvy as manipulating social media as Big Tobacco is brilliant at advertising.

I see more and more parents and citizens getting vocal about this issue. It’s an issue that affects all of us, that puts all of us at risk, but especially babies, the elderly, and people whose immunity is already compromised by cancer or other conditions. I, for one, do not want to see infectious diseases grow larger on that bar chart in the image above.

We need more voices.

I’d like to see bloggers writing about why they vaccinate. If you need inspiration, this post from Alice Callahan, PhD in Nutrition, mom, blogger at Science of Mom is a great example of where to start: On Parenting, Science, and Trust–and Choosing to Vaccinate.

I Want to Help Change This. How about You?

I’d like to hear your thoughts about vaccinations, what you’ve heard, whether it’s a controversial issue to you, your concerns, and your suggestions for encouraging people to vaccinate. 

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Part of the solution since 1973.

17 thoughts on “Let’s Talk about Vax, Baby #NaBloPoMo

  1. Welp. I’m going to be a wee voice of dissent here. We don’t vax. And one thing that is really frustrating to me is the assumption that I’m simply ignorant of the “real” facts and if only I we’re educated, saw enough scary pictures, read enough scary stories, then I’d understand. I’ve done all those things, done my own research, talking to many doctors, and with my husband, have made my decision. I absolutely don’t think that vaccines are evil, nor is autism our motivating issue. I have a fundamental disagreement with the way that disease and risk are treated my the mainstream medical community. I guess I’m just trying to offer the viewpoint that if you really do want to create a dialogue and educate people, then it might be better to assume that they are informed, intelligent people to begin with. I doubt you meant this post otherwise, but it did sting to read it.

    1. Thanks for commenting. I know how vulnerable it can feel to have a disagreement, and online conversations about vaccinations often get so heated and mean. I cringe every time I check the comments on this post, expecting a personally-directed rant, and that is NOT what I want to happen here.
      A major point of my post is that people who are pro-vax need to stop blaming and shaming people who have chosen not to vaccinate.

      Yes, my perspective does come from a place of supporting vaccinations as an important public health effort, and from a career working on policy change to improve the health of the community as a whole. However, I’m keenly interested in the reasons people have chosen not to vaccinate and I expect there is a range of reasons.

      (I have to let you know, it’s a real pet peeve of mine when people use the term ‘research’ to mean things other than conducting a study or experiment; reading research articles published in journals; or reading articles that are heavily cited and referenced and review the breadth and depth of the literature. I realize most people use the term loosely to mean they’ve read online articles, or talked to people, etc., and that’s okay. And I don’t mind it when people say they’re researching schools, for example, or where to buy the best toys. But when it’s about a science or health topic, I get prickly!!)

      That being said, I’m very, very interested in your perspective, your information, where you got it, etc. Not because I want to persuade you or argue with you, but because I want to keep an open mind and learn from others. And it’s rare to find someone who is willing to engage in a kind and respectful conversation about this issue.

      1. We agree on the no shaming and blaming, although clearly we disagree on the ideal end situation. You’re right about the word “research”. I’ve done some of both kinds but will try to be more careful next time I use that word.

        I think our family’s reasons are a bit atypical. I am not one who thinks that there is a definite autism connection, but I also don’t think it is impossible (it is not easy for science to prove a lack of something, after all). I’ve seen the research, I’m not convinced either way. I also think that our society fears autism and disability in general too much, and so it isn’t that I wouldn’t vaccinate out of fear of my child having autism.

        That said, I’m also not convinced that vaccinating for such a huge number of diseases (some really quite minor in my view) is wise from a public health standpoint. Here, I get into cell-mediated immunity and how it works vs doesn’t work, as well as the obvious monetary gain that the vaccine companies seek when pushing for more and more vaccines to be added to the recommended list. I also think that there is a real price to our immune systems when we try to side step disease. Nothing comes for free. There is some myth in the idea of herd immunity that no one discusses (after all, many outbreaks spread in vaccinated communities).

        I could write much more, but my bottom line is that there is risk in vaccines beyond the small percentage of bad reactions (but for the record it bothers me that those are down played so heavily). I also think people can have a philosophical view of health and disease that goes beyond simple statistics. Everyone has to look at that and make their own choice.

        I’d love to keep talking you if you’re curious, because I really appreciate that you’re willing to engage in such a respectful conversation. I, too, believe that the health of our communities is important and actually don’t see my choice to be counter to that goal. Please send me an email if you’d like, it’s on my blog sidebar. 🙂

  2. It’s amazing how touch of a subject vaccines have become! The blessing and curse of the internet is that it informs people. Sometimes this is with the right information, and sometimes it is with information that is absolutely incorrect. All we can do is hope people use their own logic and reason to make the best decision for their child.

  3. Few subjects can get me on a soapbox more than this, so I’m going to say very little other than I’ve expended a great deal of energy trying to persuade people of the value of vaccines ever since a certain sexy star made false statements. It was exhausting to have to defend one of the greatest public health achievements of all times. Today’s vaccines come with far less antigens, and they have excellent safety profiles. In fact, we are bombarded with far more foreign antigens in our day-to-day interactions than we are from vaccines. The only other thing I’ll say is excellent post. 🙂

  4. Okay, attempting a more reasoned response, as I do agree that blame doesn’t motivate people…
    I think the key is education. Most parents who don’t vaccinate genuinely (if erroneously) believe that there is a high risk of autism or something similar. In fact vaccines, like almost any medication, do carry a slight risk, usually of an allergic reaction, but this is tiny and outweighed by the danger of contracting the disease. The government needs to take responsibility for informing and educating parents so they understand why vaccination is so important, and that it is safe. These people have their children’s best interests at heart and informing them would be more effective than judging or threatening them.
    (However I think the threat of prosecution would motivate the few who still refuse, due to laziness or other dubious reasons.)

    1. Our state just passed a law requiring parents to watch an educational video about vaccinations before they can opt out. I think they modeled it after a successful law in Washington state. Public health agencies do make an effort to get out into the community, but it’s not like they have budgets to equal the social media campaigns or sparkly media draws of celebrity doctors and Jenny McCarthy. It’s a huge challenge.
      An idea I have, and I’d like to rope you into this, is to encourage a bunch of bloggers to write their own posts about this. Like with most issues, it’s the small group of people who are opposed who have the loudest, most frequent voices. Let’s do our part!

  5. I don’t know how you persuade people who’ve made up their minds despite the evidence. Adults should be free to make their own choices, but refusing to vaccinate children is like refusing to send them to school, or worse. It’s neglect and if the child suffers as a result the parents should be prosecuted. I realise that seems extreme, but so is letting children die from preventable diseases!
    Rant over…deep breath…sorry! As you can tell I feel very strongly about this.

    1. I’ve seen other people refer to it as a form of child abuse/neglect. I see it as parallel to the parents whose religion leads them to not seek medical care for their children.
      I understand that people don’t want to be told what to do, mistrust government, distrust authorities, and want to live “naturally” but I’m also so grateful for the modern technologies and medicines that have improved our lives. I would’ve died in either of my childbirths 100, maybe even 50 years ago. And you and I both would have had children or friends’ children with polio or measles or any of the myriad other preventable diseases. Thanks for your comment. I really do appreciate you weighing in.

  6. Interesting post. I was aware of the controversies about vaccinations. The only stat I need to know is that more people live longer because of them. The reward outweighs the statistically minimal risks.

  7. I believe in immunizations. Why are so many people afraid of having their children immunized? Is it true they can cause autism? Personally, I don’t think so. And I hope not. Even if so, would they prefer their child die from an immunizable disease rather than have autism? For me, that would not even be a question.

    1. They absolutely do not cause autism. Andrew Wakefield, from the UK, published a study making that claim, and had to retract the article because he made false claims about his findings and did his experiments unethically (drawing samples from children at a birthday party!). He had patented vaccine that would separate out the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (which are normally given together: the MMR) BEFORE he published his study, the basis of which claimed that the MMR shot may be linked to autism. That claim has been retested and found to be untrue. He has been stripped of his medical license. http://www.reportingonhealth.org/blogs/vaccine-researcher-andrew-wakefield-stripped-license-uk

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