Combating Vaccine Refusal
Jun 17, 2011

Using The “D” Word to Explain the “P” Word

Yesterday I read an interesting post on the Moms Who Vax blog.  It has been inspiring to follow along on this new blog and hear how moms from Minnesota have sprung into action to combat vaccine preventable diseases that are making a comeback in their communities.   They have become the “boots on the ground” in campaigning for better parent-to-parent communication and supporting stronger immunization legislation in their state.
I commend them, not just because of the advocacy they stand for, but because they are moms using their voices to influence neighbors, doctors and public health.  And I, for one, can appreciate that effort.
In yesterday’s post, there was a comment about the fact that many doctors refrain from using the “D” word. (The “D” word, in this case, is Death.)  The suggestion was that it is an appropriate term to use when discussing the risks of vaccine preventable diseases.

It was a total “Ah, hah!” moment for me.  The writer had hit the nail on the head.

Not only have doctors been trained to avoid the “D” word, they are also expected to be sensitive to patient’s fears and feelings.  While it’s understandable to accommodate patients to a certain extent, it’s also imperative that health care decisions are not dictated be a “customer is always right” mentality that other “businesses” must succumb to in today’s competitive economic environment.
The point was made in a very upfront, no-nonsense manner, with the tone of a seasoned mom:

“…it’s all in the delivery, I reminded them. You don’t get the James Mason God-voice and boom “Death!” You say, gently, that you are ethically obligated to let them know that the risk of not vaccinating includes serious disability or death. ‘Nuff said.”

I thought about how relevant this was to a personal experience I had many years ago.  I wasn’t very familiar with vaccine advocacy at the time, but I was committed to vaccinating  my children in order to protect them from dangerous and sometimes deadly diseases. Unfortunately, I didn’t fully understand the risks of pertussis at the time.

So the story goes like this…

I was at the doctor’s office and he asks if I would like to get a Tdap booster (which stands for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis vaccine).  While I don’t recall if I was in the office for a sick call or a well visit, I do recall that I had several tired, hungry and active children with me and a long list of things I needed to accomplish before both the children and I went into meltdown mode.  (I remember this because it is fairly typical of every other day during this 10 year period of my life when I was working, raising 5 children and dealing with a frequently deployed husband.) I knew that if I were to agree to get a shot that day, I would most definitely be held up in that busy office for much longer than I could sanely afford.
What I didn’t know were the dangers of the “P” word. (In this case, the “P” refers to pertussis.)
It’s hard to admit this now, but I refused this shot, not because I was concerned about the safety of the vaccine, but simply because I was a busy stressed out mom, with lots to do and no real understanding of pertussis and the risk I was posing to myself or others by not vaccinating.

Here’s the part that could kill me – literally.

My doctor simply walked away.
He never asked me why I was declining the vaccine.  He never explained what diseases the vaccine would help immunize me against.  He didn’t even explain that if I got pertussis, I could be putting children – too young to be vaccinated – at risk for hospitalization or even Death (and yes, I spelled it with a capital “D”).
I just didn’t know and he just didn’t tell me.
Perhaps a simple discussion with my doctor may have resulted in a different outcome.  Perhaps my doctor felt like I did – he just didn’t have the time.  Or perhaps he felt like most everyone else I know – he didn’t like to be confrontational. I may never know, as we have moved and have a new doctor.
But how many times does this exact scenario play out in hospitals and clinics all over the country?
I’m going to guess…far too many times.
So, the lesson is, vaccine refusal doesn’t necessarily mean that a parent is concerned about the safety of vaccines.  It can simply mean that a parent doesn’t know why they should be getting immunized, or what terrible things may happen if they don’t get immunized. 

Communication is key and it’s up to parents, as well as doctors, to be open to it.

On the Moms Who Vax blog, the post ended with a real-life example of how a couple, with a newborn baby, had been influenced by their non-vaccinating family members.  The glimmer of hope was that a doctor had taken the time to talk with these parents.  What’s equally important is that the parents also took the time to listen, learn, and now –thankfully- vaccinate.
There are plenty of ways that parents are trying to communicate with other parents.  On the Moms Who Vax blog, on our Vaccinate Your Baby Facebook page, on the Shot By Shot website and in this explicit video.  Here a parent shares images of their child suffering with pertussis in order to help others to identify the symptoms and prevent fatal outcomes.  This kind of awareness is not intended to generate fear, but to educate about the very real risks of something as dangerous as pertussis.  If only I had seen something like this years ago…
Please take a moment to watch this video and then pass the word that adult Tdap boosters can help prevent this kind of suffering.   [youtube=]

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