Vaccines have recently become just as political as gun violence

One recent study shows that the willingness to vaccinate may be influenced by political status; those who are more politically conservative are less likely to hold pro-vaccine beliefs. 

The inundation of reasons for and against vaccination is exhausting. Medical providers have continued to discuss the importance of vaccines with the support of well-designed studies to reinforce our message.

ADVERTISEMENT

And although vaccines have been touted as one of the most important advances in public health, the most recent vaccine-preventable outbreaks are examples that the words of experts and these studies are often falling on deaf ears.

North Carolina is experiencing its worst outbreak of chickenpox in 20 years, attributed to increased religious exemptions to the varicella zoster vaccine.

Simultaneously, New York and New Jersey are swept by an outbreak of measles, also part of the largest outbreak of measles in decades, responsible for more than 30 deaths in the European Union, and thought to be related to travel of unvaccinated individuals.

Pertussis, or whooping cough, has similarly been on the rise, at least partially caused by delayed or missing vaccinations, with the most severe disease in infants. 

Despite evidence that influenza vaccination is effective against pediatric deaths from influenza, more than 80 percent of children who died from influenza in the last season were not vaccinated.

For each of these conditions, we know that vaccines are effective and that young children are more vulnerable to the most severe and fatal disease if they become infected.

As physicians, we try to save these children when they come into our care. And we are not always successful.

Some of the most vulnerable patients are those whose immune systems are weakened by illness, treatment for cancer or other conditions; they cannot receive vaccines during the time their immune systems are weak.

While some may feel that doctors need to back off or stay in their lane on this and other issues, maybe we should agree. 

Perhaps, it’s time we shifted our attention to those parents who choose to vaccinate there kids. So, in honor of our Thanksgiving celebrations this weekend, we would like to give thanks to the parents who choose to vaccinate their children. 

Thank you for your selflessness. We know it is not easy to take off work, to drag your kids into the office, to wait in the waiting room, and to see your kids cry, scream, or wince in pain.

We would like to thank you for not only protecting your children and your family but also the children around you.

This is a phenomenon called herd immunity, where vaccines for the majority of those in a population can offer protection to others, especially, the children not old enough for vaccines or whose immune systems are too weak to benefit from vaccination. 

Herd immunity is made possible when others are vaccinated or have developed immunity after infection with a disease and the overall rates of disease in the community are low or non-existent.

Vaccinating parents are protecting the most vulnerable, as keepers of “the herd,” so thank you.

To be sure, there are important reasons that parents cannot vaccinate their children, such as their age, their allergies, and if they are immunocompromised. 

However, vaccine refusal and hesitancy are generally not because of these factors and tend to be multifactorial and complex, such as lack of trust in health care providers or healthcare authorities. Commonly, parents cite concerns about the risks or adverse reactions related to vaccines or concerns about autism, which have been refuted.

In North Carolina, religious or philosophical objections were the major reasons for vaccine refusal. However, the vaccine refusal can also be more mundane, like multiple vaccines at once, concerns about specific vaccine ingredients, pain, cost or desire for freedom of choice.

Many approaches have been suggested to deal with vaccine refusal, with the more controversial approaches ranging from compulsory vaccination programs to dismissing patients from provider practices for non-vaccination.

We continue, however, to support that open communication is the best strategy for maintaining trust in the patient-provider relationship.

Misconceptions about vaccines should be corrected. Parental concerns about specific vaccine adverse effects should be heard and addressed.

The Centers for Disease ControlAmerican Academy of Pediatrics, and American Academy of Family Physicians all offer resources, which can be helpful tools to guide conversations with vaccine-hesitant parents.

Although the latest outbreaks highlight that strategies are not always successful to improve vaccination rates, the outbreaks and the start of flu season provide an important reminder for providers to continue their efforts to protect the most vulnerable. 

So, to those parents who are unsure about vaccination, we suggest a conversation with your doctor who would be willing to listen.

And, to those who choose to vaccinate, know that your doctors are grateful for the choices you make. Even if we do not explicitly tell you, while we are in the office with you, please know, we are doing a happy dance in our minds.

We are happy for your child and those around your child. Thank you for your altruism and concern. We give thanks for you all year round. 

Erin Paquette M.D. is a pediatric critical care doctor and lawyer, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and adjunct professor at NU’s Pritzker School of Law. Nia Heard-Garris M.D. is a pediatrician, researcher and instructor of pediatrics at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Northwestern University. Both are Public Voices Fellows through The OpEd Project.