And, like many, I'd really like to see progress.
Let me out myself first: I am pro-vaccine. I come to the table with a very strong opinion that vaccination is a good thing. My son is uber-vaccinated-- because we have traveled extensively since he was an infant, he had early vaccines for measles and hepatitis A and is even vaccinated against yellow fever and typhoid. Just this week, he had his kindergarten boosters. I always get the annual flu vaccine, and though I am not convinced the data on pregnant women getting a whooping cough vaccine in the third trimester is that robust, I pulled up my sleeve and ceded to vaccination just last month-- trusting that the risk is minimal. I'm a public health enthusiast.
All this being said, I work intimately with hundreds of families who believe otherwise-- and I don't only work with them, I love them and care for them, and counsel them.
As a family doctor caring for a population who chooses overwhelmingly to make alternative vaccine choices, I often find myself in the uncomfortable place where the two worlds collide. And while I consider myself a vaccine believer, I also find myself intensely offended by the denigrating tone so many take with people who choose to make the choice NOT to vaccinate. Perhaps it's because I know them personally. And I know that they want what we all want-- what's best for our children. It's just what's "best" may not be so black and white for some as those of us believers want to believe.
I also know that berating parents for the decisions they are making for their children is unlikely to change their minds.
After all, what was your response the last time you were berated? Did you say, Hey thanks for calling me uneducated and stupid and ignorant. You are soooo right, let me reverse my entire decision-making process and go with yours?
Vaccinators (of which I consider myself one) are those I will call "vaccine believers". That doesn't necessarily mean we believe in God, Santa Claus, or the Republican Party. In fact, a large proportion is made up of liberals and skeptics: academics, journalists, returned Peace Corps Volunteers, scientists, and scholarly folk. But vaccinators are a mixed bag: we also include immigrants, the urban poor, and others who either aren't empowered enough to question authority or those who have personally experienced vaccine-preventable disease. Most believers have never read a book or a study about the safety of vaccines-- even the scholarly subset. They don't need to. They take the recommended schedule (available here), follow it like a road map, and trust in the integrity of the institution of medicine and the wisdom of their predecessors. Both instill in them a steadfast trust in the value of vaccines. Perhaps most importantly, believers are descendants of vaccinators. Their perception of risk is reinforced by the community in which they live and by stories of vaccine-preventable illness.They may have traveled to a country where they have seen victims of polio or meningitis. They may be from one of those countries. Or maybe not. They don't harbor suspicion about the morality of governmental recommendations-- in fact, they trust and embrace both the integrity of science and the righteousness of health policy-makers. They do question the morality of people who choose to put communities at risk for their own personal interest.
Anti-vaccinators are those I will call "vaccine atheists". Again, this designation has nothing to do with religion-- in fact one of the largest outbreaks of measles prior to our current one involved an enclave of orthodox Jews in New York who were choosing not to vaccinate based on religious teachings (see report here). I'm just borrowing recognizable terminology. Where I live, most anti-vaccinators are not particularly religious, though many would call themselves "spiritual". Like believers, atheists are a mixed bag: some are quite educated, others are not. For a range of reasons-- I'm not always sure why-- they do not fear the diseases that vaccines are targeted to prevent. They don't believe in the inherent value of immunization-- and they believe that the potential risks of said vaccines are more likely and more dangerous than the diseases themselves. Just like believers, most vaccine atheists have not extensively read books or studies about the safety of vaccines. They, too, don't really need to. They know vaccines carry risks, and they choose not to chance those risks. Their perception of risk is reinforced by the community in which they live and by isolated reports of horrible outcomes after vaccination. Some specifically fear autism, but for most, the theoretically risks are much more complex. Importantly, most are descendants of non-vaccinators. They look at the CDC recommendations and scoff at the ridiculous number of immunizations recommended. They know that there is always uncertainty in any medical intervention, they wonder what the actual risk is for their child, and they question both the science and the moral integrity of those making official recommendations.
So, you see, there might be more similarities between the two groups than we might have previously guessed. We are all products of our upbringings. Neither side has read much. Neither can quote validated data. We both dig in our heels and hold our positions. And thus we quickly forget that we share some commonalities-- namely we live on the same planet and maybe even next door to each other, and we should be TALKING to each other.
Here's what I propose we talk about:
Vaccinators fear vaccine-preventable disease. They do not want measles, influenza, meningitis, or polio to be running around our country (and our world) infecting vulnerable children or frail adults. They do not want to return to a place where people die or are disabled from vaccine-preventable illness. Vaccinators also fear that decisions of others not to vaccinate put their children at risk. I get it.
Let's talk about what scares us, why it scares us, and see if we can find some common ground. Let's talk about why some are afraid of the diseases and others of the vaccines. Let's see if we can reasonably sort out what we should be afraid of. . .and which fears we can probably set aside.
This is the trickiest for me-- as a scientist, doctor, and general book nerd, I love reading the data. My patients will tell you that a most common phrase out of my mouth starts with, "Studies have shown. . .". followed up by some really cool meaningful information that helps back up my recommendation.
Let's talk about where you get your information. I'm curious. Can you please share resources you have found helpful? What about some that are unhelpful? Who do you trust? Why? Why not? What makes information trustworthy? What makes it untrustworthy? How much weight does anecdote carry in your decision making? What about a large population study? What can I do as your fellow human to make information feel more helpful?
3) Geographic isolationism
Just like red versus blue, carnivore versus herbivore, and God versus not-God, we humans tend to surround ourselves with people who have similar thinking and similar modus operandi. Research shows that differences in vaccine uptake are extremely geographical, which literally means that our neighbors reinforce whatever set of beliefs we tend already to have. When we geographically isolate ourselves, we conveniently reinforce our own beliefs (right or wrong) and protect ourselves from intelligent conversation that might challenge those beliefs. And in this way, we don't encourage ourselves (or our counterparts) to develop intelligible and meaningful responses to real and important questions. For example, why are some people so scared of preservatives in vaccines and others aren't? Why are some people so scared of vaccine-preventable illness and others aren't? Why might someone you love and respect make a totally different decision about something you find morally reprehensible? Shouldn't we know the answers to these most basic questions? . To get answers, though, we have to ask. And to ask, we have to not only come into contact with but also feel safe in the company of those who might think differently than us.
Let's reach across the aisle and be curious (and I mean non-judgey curiously curious) and cross over the line every once in awhile. We might be surprised to find ourselves more educated because of it-- being curious with my patients has certainly led me to read more and understand more what people are afraid of. And my patients being curious about my thoughts has hopefully helped them make informed decisions.
Even in my own social circles, I have found the topic of vaccine choices to be off limits in mixed company-- other than in my exam room where I have some say over what conversations are cultivated. Living in Sonoma County, I am well aware that I am often in mixed vaccine company, and as a mother, I wouldn't touch the topic with a ten foot pole. Immunization in my town is right up there with super stigmatizing topics: how much money your family makes and whether you do crazy things in your bedroom. Rather than friends and family being a safe venue for intelligent conversation, I find that people are so sensitive about their choices (in both directions), that we're afraid to ask. In fact, I was out for coffee with a doctor friend just this week, and he casually inquired about another doctor friend's vaccination views. He knew my perspective and felt safe asking me about me, but had never discussed the issue with her, knowing it could get sensitive fast. This returns me to the important notion that we are so influenced by what is happening in our community, so that even people I might consider vocal vaccinators find themselves silenced. I am supremely aware that I may isolate and offend my patients if I simply try to bulldoze them with personal opinions-- I believe it is my duty as a physician to be sensitive to their vulnerabilities and present the topic in a loving and respectful manner-- even (or maybe especially) when I disagree.
Can we lower our own sensitivity about decisions we make for our families and temper our defensiveness so that we might have meaningful conversations on the topic? What might those conversations look like in a non-judgmental space? Might we find some more middle ground?
5) Lack of communication
Communication, of course, involves all of the above issues already mentioned and so much more. And while I personally feel strongly that my own children be fully vaccinated for their well-being as well as the well-being of our community, I am utterly turned off by the general blasting of non-vaccinators. It simply will not work to scare or judge or berate parents into making different choices. It won't work. This is not a war. This is not really about me versus you. This is an opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation about true risks of real disease and true risks and benefits of vaccine, true fears and true needs of parents to do what is right for their child AND for public health and feel comfortable doing so.
Do me a favor, and cool your jets. Ask someone you know and love but that you assume has a different opinion than you on the vaccine matter to share their reasoning. Listen. Discuss. And then share yours. Then listen some more. You might be surprised about what may come out of such a conversation. You might learn something, you might teach something, and we may all be grateful for the step forward.