Vaccine Influencers and Social Media Messages
Last week HuffPost Live featured a discussion of vaccination and for once I was pleased to see a media conversation that didn’t pose the topic as a debate.
The three people interviewed in the segment were all supportive of vaccines. They included Every Child By Two parent advocate Katie Van Tornhout, who lost her daughter Callie to whooping cough at only 38 days old, Seattle blogger Jennifer Crewell who lost her adolescent brother to meningococcal disease, and pediatrician Dr. Scott Goldstein, whose Northwestern Children’s Practice has opted not to see patients who refuse immunizations. (To see the full interview click here.)
While Katie and Jennifer shared their heartbreaking stories of losing loved ones to vaccine-preventable diseases, Dr. Goldstein explained why his decision not to accept unvaccinated children is the right one for him and his patients – a topic that has prompted a great deal of emotion and debate on our Vaccinate Your Baby Facebook page.
On the one side, people feel there is a continued need for unvaccinated children to have access to quality medical care, despite the poor choices their parents are making. There is also hope that a continued doctor relationship may pave the way for a change in parental views on vaccines. Yet, on the other side, people accept that doctors who operate their own private practice should be free to decide whether to accept or deny care to unvaccinated children. Most people understand why doctors would not want to subject patients to preventable diseases and the risk they are accepting if they do. Some argue that if parents can’t accept a doctor’s professional recommendation on vaccines than they’re probably unlikely to have a respectful relationship with that doctor anyway. Others believe that when a doctor makes a strong declaration in favor of the recommended schedule that it sends an important message to parents.
The irony here is that while this insightful discussion was taking place in regards to immunization policies, three other characters were blowing up social media with their opposition to vaccination.
In an interview with Fox Business Kristin Cavallari, the pregnant reality TV celebrity married to Chicago Bears’ quarterback Jay Cutler, revealed that her son is unvaccinated and that her and her husband do not intend to vaccinate their second. While Cavallari explained that this personal decision was based on various books that she believed show a link between vaccines and autism, several media outlets including “Good Morning America,” responded by citing current scientific evidence that highlights the safety and importance of vaccines. Despite the media’s quick response, Cavallari still went on to defend her decision by sharing links to anti-vaccine websites on her Twitter account which is followed by as many as 1.15 million people.
Also last week, celebrity Playboy bunny Jenny McCarthy, who ignited a vaccine debate years ago when she publicly claimed that vaccines made her son autistic, also drew unexpected attention to herself on social media when she asked her 1.13 million Twitter followers, “What is the most important personality trait you look for in a mate?” Many science advocates responded to her #JennyAsks hashtag by suggesting “Someone who doesn’t spread false info causing disease” and “Somebody who gets that refusing vaccines because of ‘toxins’ and then shilling for e-cigs makes you a pathetic hypocrite.” While anyone can search #JennyAsks to view numerous clever comebacks, this scenario highlights how hard we’re still working today to undue damage done by false information she spouted many years ago.
And then for the highlight of the week. A Facebook post from Dr. Bob Sears in response to a measles outbreak. After publishing a book that exonerated parents from the responsibility of vaccinating their child according to the recommended schedule, Dr. Bob has continued to promote an individualized approach to vaccines by encouraging parents to either delay, avoid or selectively vaccinate their children according to their own whim. In short, Dr. Bob has always played the role of accommodating physician, doing whatever a parent is comfortable with, while failing to adequately communicate the real risks and consequences of the diseases we aim to prevent with safe and effective vaccination programs.
The irony is twofold. First, Dr. Bob seemed frustrated that people were expressing concern about a measles outbreak while also expressing interest in vaccination. Second, Dr. Bob is no stranger to measles outbreaks. In fact, 0ne of his patients was identified as “patient zero” in a major measles outbreak in 2008. In spite of this Dr. Bob chose to address the issue on his Facebook page last week as follows:
Measles Epidemic . . . NOT!
Why is it that every time there are a few cases of measles, everyone panics? I just don’t get it. So, here’s the situation in the O.C., where I live and practice. Seven cases. Seven. That’s 7. Not 700, not a million. Seven. So, why do people panic? Here’s one reason: the ^$#@*&%&*$# media. News reports go out stating that there are outbreaks of measles, and everyone needs to be concerned. Everyone is quick to blame those who don’t vaccinate, AND those who don’t vaccinate start to panic. We’ve gotten dozens of calls to our office with people wanting to know if they should come in for the vaccine.
Here’s my take on it:
EVERY single year in the U.S. we have measles – between 50 and 150 cases. Last year there were two large outbreaks – 58 cases in New York and over 20 in Texas. Both those outbreaks died out. No one has died from measles in the U.S. in over 10 years. So, there is ALWAYS the potential for measles. ALWAYS. If you choose not to do the vaccine, then you just have to accept that fact, and not panic whenever you hear the “M” word. You’ve lived with this risk for years, so why panic just because there are 7 cases in the county you live in? This year there will be more than usual, the way it’s looking so far, but it’s not a reason to panic. Make your choice – do vaccine, or don’t do the vaccine.
So, when SHOULD someone worry? If an actual direct exposure has occurred from a known case, then you might be at risk. This doesn’t mean a case in the county in which you live: it means that you’ve actually been in the same room with someone who has had measles. Or, at the most, maybe the same building. But transmission almost always requires close proximity (same room). There have been a handful of cases over the decades in which someone sitting across a stadium has caught it, but that is almost unheard of. You have to be in the same room, people. If THAT happens, call me. If not, then just relax and go about your life as usual.
IF we see more cases, I’ll let you know. Actually, just to give you a heads up, we probably WILL see a few more cases. But virtually all measles outbreaks are limited to 10 to 20 cases in any given county. So, the chance that any one of your unvaccinated children is going to be a case is very very very very very small. I love you all, and love caring for you all. But just chill out. Measles will never go away – it’s always going to be a very small risk. If you aren’t comfortable with that, get the vaccine. If you don’t want the vaccine, accept the risk.
Here are some thoughts on this social media mishap:
It’s interesting that Dr. Bob is receiving calls from people who are asking for a vaccine, especially considering that he was probably a huge influence in their decision not to vaccinate. This makes me believe that when they choose not to vaccinate, they did so knowing that their protection came from those who willingly vaccinate and contribute to community immunity. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense. If they did not vaccinate because they were concerned about adverse events or ingredients that they claim are making children chronically ill or autistic, why would they suddenly change their minds?
After years of claiming that he’s not opposed to vaccinations, while simultaneously convincing parents that vaccines aren’t necessary because we rarely see these diseases anymore, Dr. Bob seemed frustrated with those seeking vaccines. “Chill out” he says. He tries to explain that there are few cases but certainly realizes that his entire vaccine philosophy is based on the belief that these diseases don’t typically occur in a nation where the overwhelming majority of people vaccinate. Perhaps he is worried that his advice is backfiring. If too many people are convinced not to vaccinate and outbreaks continue to happen, it’s likely that parents will no longer be comforted by his faulty reasoning and they will start to understand that diseases are something to be concerned about.
As Dr. Bob continues to play down the risk of disease, he neglects to mention that measles is highly contagious and sometime life threatening. Sure, he says, your child will probably not die (never mind that they may suffer and develop complications that could have easily been avoided with a safe and effective vaccine). He also claims that there is no need to worry unless you’ve been exposed, and then fails to explain how contagious measles is or how likely it is that you will never know you’ve been exposed until it is too late.)
These examples demonstrate that immunization conversations aren’t always framed as a debate, but that doesn’t mean they’re not being used to influence public opinion. When all is said and done we can see how social media messages from people like Cavalleli, McCarthy and Dr. Bob can negatively impact people’s perception of vaccines. Which is why we must continue to correct misinformation and make an effort to educate people about the real risks and benefits associated with vaccines and vaccine policies.
Later this week, we intend to ask for your support in a legislative effort to reduce school vaccination exemptions. If we can work together to support strong immunization policies, we can minimize the opinions of people like Cavallari, McCarthy and Sears while working to elevate the message of advocates like Katie Van Tornhout.