We can’t talk about vaccines without talking about community

Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate a downward trend in vaccine coverage in the United States. Although we still need to learn more about the factors causing this shift, it’s clear that public health professionals and healthcare providers need to more explicitly make the importance of community and how much we are connected to each other, a part of the conversation.

The CDC data are alarming. Nationwide, fewer than 4 out of 10 adults received the flu vaccine last year, leading to an estimated 49 million people getting sick, along with 960,000 flu-related hospitalizations and 79,000 deaths.

ADVERTISEMENT
Additionally, the percentage of children receiving no vaccines has increased over time. Over the past several years, we have seen disease outbreaks around the nation in areas with poor vaccination coverage: Europe is battling its worst measles outbreak in a decade and there have been 15 measles outbreaks in the United States this year alone. As an infectious disease clinician for children and adults, I know how severe these and other vaccine-preventable diseases can be.

We live in a diverse country. However, when you look at the things that really matter, you’ll find that we have much in common. For example, despite our different outlooks, cultural beliefs and ZIP codes, almost everyone believes in the importance of being supported by community and wants what is best for his or her loved ones. When thinking about the uncertainties that some people have about vaccines, we should keep this in mind. And we should respond by speaking directly to those values.

Vaccines have saved the lives of millions of people in the United States. By getting vaccinated today, someone is not only protecting her or himself, they are also helping keep the people around them safe, including their family members, friends, neighbors, co-workers, classmates and fellow worshipers. The impact on those in the surrounding community should be at the center of every conversation we have about vaccines, as it should be with dozens of other public health issues, including drug overdoses, mental health, drinking and driving, air and water quality and healthy aging.

The rising fear and mistrust we see today around vaccine safety and efficacy are, in part, due to rejections of science and an erosion of trust. However, it also has to do with the fact that we don’t always recognize how much we depend on each other or how much we both impact and are impacted by the health of our communities. Improving immunization rates in our country and solving the other health challenges that we face today requires us to come together around shared values such as these and requires us to recognize that we’re all in it together.

If you have concerns about vaccine safety, discuss them with your healthcare provider or specialist who has spent years in training to learn how vaccines work and why they are effective. Your state or local public health department is also an excellent place to get information and assistance. This flu season, get your flu shot and keep your immunizations up to date. Your health — and the health of the nation — depends on it.

Dr. Alexander-Scott is the director of the Rhode Island Department of Health and president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.