Not so fast. It's not that easy.
Jan 21, 2011
By Christine Vara
Since the media exploded with the “not-so-new” news regarding Andrew Wakefield, I have immersed myself in the coverage; from newspaper editorials, to interviews on major news channels, to science blogs. Honestly, my mind is still working to process all the information I have read and seen these past few weeks. Declarations (made many times before) that there is no link between vaccines and autism should be regarded as great coverage to anyone who advocates for public health, right?
Well, yes. However, it’s not so simple.
What I have witnessed, in the aftermath of the latest Wakefield developments, is a renewed interest by the media to address the issues of vaccines and autism. I’m not going to complain. These opportunities to illustrate Wakefield’s fraud should help get the message out to parents that there is no proven link between vaccines and autism. In turn, one could venture to say that this coverage should only help to promote further vaccination, right?
Again, I would like to say yes, but this alone will not make the difference. It takes time. It takes perseverance. And it requires a great deal of resolve and commitment.
It appears that, for the time being, the general media has altered it’s non-committal stance on vaccines from years past and come down strongly against the notion that vaccines cause autism. Rather than sensationalize a poorly researched suggestion that vaccines are in some way linked to autism, the media has recently grabbed hold of the ammunition provided by Brian Deer, to call out Wakefield on his fraudulent research. Additionally, growing concerns about pertussis outbreaks in states like California, along with recent book releases such as Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All by Dr. Paul Offit, and The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science and Fear by Seth Mnookin, have all helped draw media attention toward the concerning immunization culture in this country today.
But while Brian Deer’s reports are full of detail that certainly damage Wakefield’s reputation, the fact is Wakefield is still being called upon for interviews, thereby using his voice to declare an elaborate conspiracy against him. Sadly, there will be people who want to believe him. Worse yet, there will be others that are scared not to believe him, left wondering, “Why should I risk autism for my child, when we really don’t see these diseases we are vaccinating against?” Then, there will be some who have never even heard of him, but who have somehow heard of a possible connection between vaccines and autism.
In the end, what matters is not just what information is being shared through the media, as much as how the information is being received by the parents – the ultimate immunization decision makers.
I found it interesting to review the results from a new Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll that appeared in US News with the lead “Slightly More Than Half of Americans Say Vaccines Don’t Cause Autism”.
First, I question what the title was meant to suggest. Wouldn’t this statistic indicate that almost half still believe there is a link? The poll goes on to reveal that “69 percent of respondents said they had heard about the autism-vaccination theory — but only half (47 percent) knew that the original Lancet study had been retracted, and that some of that research is now alleged to be fraudulent.” Are we to assume that those who have heard of the retraction believe vaccines don’t cause autism? And likewise, that those who haven’t heard of the retraction still believe there’s a link?
Secondly, I question whether the timing of the poll was meant to assess whether this latest round of Wakefield coverage was having any impact on the opinions of the general public. Are we to believe that a few days of main stream media attention would actually convince people to cast away their previous concerns about vaccines? Wishful thinking, to say the least. Let’s recognize that concerns aren’t just centered on autism.
Addressing the growing vaccine hesitancy in our country will probably require a well-orchestrated and specific plan. One, in my humble opinion, that requires the voices of many more vaccine advocates – to include parents, public health officials, doctors and scientists in a concentrated collaborative effort.
While it is important to seize this media opportunity to get a message out to parents about the importance, safety and efficacy of vaccines, we can’t rely on the whim of main-stream media to arbitrarily choose the message or the messengers. We must actively seek opportunities across a variety of mediums.
After reading today’s “A Century Of Vaccines” series in The New York Times, I have to agree with author Michael Willrich, associate professor of history at Brandeis University, on several key points he makes in his article entitled, “Why Parents Fear the Needle”. In reviewing the history of vaccine hesitancy, he comments on how we might regain the public’s confidence in vaccines and states,
“America’s public health leaders need to do the same, to reclaim the town square with a candid national conversation about the real risks of vaccines, which are minuscule compared with their benefits. Why waste another breath vilifying the antivaccination minority when steps can be taken to expand the pro-vaccine majority?
Obstetricians, midwives and pediatricians should present the facts about vaccines and the nasty diseases they prevent early and often to expectant parents. Health agencies should mobilize local parents’ organizations to publicize, in realistic terms, the hazards that unvaccinated children can pose to everyone else in their communities. And health officials must redouble their efforts to harness the power of the Internet and spread the good word about vaccines.”
This nation needs to tap into the many public health advocates who have a clear understanding of the risks and benefits of immunization and encourage them to engage parents on a more personal level. Day in and day out I read hundreds of comments that are posted on our Facebook page in response to immunization news that is shared. I am impressed that there are several devoted supporters who go to great lengths to offer valid research that counters the anti-vaccine sentiment that we are bombarded with. However, we need more people willing to go to take such great measures.
Clearly, the majority of parents are vaccinating. According to the Health Day poll, about 92%. But what do they know about vaccinations? Are they vaccinating because they are told to, or because they truly understand and believe in the benefits?
Once we assist parents in understanding immunizations and the science behind them, then we may find that they will gladly roll up their sleeves and those of their children. If we can establish a strong partnership of respect between parents and medical professionals, than I believe we will begin to build upon a culture of renewed trust that will help ensure good health for generations to come.
Unfortunately, if we are not effective in reaching out to parents, they will be more likely to embrace their emotional fears and refuse the scientific logic that suggests that vaccines can save lives. Let’s not sit idly by, but look for new ways and opportunities to reach out to others.
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