Vaccine Myths Still Undermine Infants’ Access to Care
Apr 28, 2020
This guest post was written by Mitchell Goldstein, MD. Dr. Goldstein is a professor of pediatrics at Loma Linda University Children’s Hospital in Loma Linda, CA, and medical director of the National Coalition for Infant Health.
Researchers are working at breakneck speed to find a safe and effective way to protect American families from COVID-19. The situation reminds us as a country that the power of life and death is in the vaccine. But it also begs us to remember that, for diseases where vaccines already exist, many people don’t receive the recommended protections. As a neonatologist, I am concerned especially about young children.
Even with science that proves vaccines’ power against diseases like mumps, whooping cough and the flu, children are missing vaccinations and being exposed to the threat of preventable diseases. This trend continues even though the Affordable Care Act, along with many state Medicaid systems, eliminated co-pays for vaccines, making immunization free for families across the socioeconomic landscape. As VYF’s 2020 State of the ImmUnion reports, vaccination discrepancies linger, particularly in minority, rural, low-income and Medicaid populations.
Why would families forego a free, lifesaving medication that protects their child from illness? The answer is multifaceted. But I see sensationalized and highly visible misinformation as a key threat to children’s health. In my work as a neonatologist, and in my capacity as medical director for the National Coalition for Infant Health, I observe “vaccine hesitancy” rooted in several persistent myths and misconceptions that I’ll address here.
Fact #1: Vaccines do NOT cause autism.
Years ago, a single poorly constructed study suggested that a vaccine can cause autism. That research, and the scientist behind it, have since been widely and repeatedly discredited. We must remember that we humans once believed the world was flat. We once believed that bloodletting would stop headaches, that warm springs could heal rheumatism. Public and individual health requires us to turn our backs on bad and disproven pseudo-science and embrace real, science-based solutions.
Fact #2: Vaccines are still voluntary.
If vaccines worked, the argument plays out on social media, the government wouldn’t “force” us to take them. For a timely analogy, look no further than social distancing policies now in place. States under stay-at-home orders can ticket citizens for failing to practice social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. This isn’t because social distancing doesn’t work, but precisely because it does. Yet people tell themselves, “I won’t catch the coronavirus.” Or “I’m healthy. It won’t kill me.” Like seatbelt laws, state requirements that children must be vaccinated to enroll in public school are an example of the government trying to save us from ourselves.
Fact #3: Vaccine ingredients are safe and well tested.
Today’s vaccines contain small amounts of ingredients that each serve a specific purpose, such as improving the body’s response to the vaccine or preventing dangerous contamination. But they often have names that can startle the average parent. Toxicity that can be caused by different ingredients is usually about volume. You may hear experts explain, for instance, that the pear sitting in your kitchen fruit basket contains more formaldehyde than a single vaccine. For vaccine ingredients to be dangerous, you’d need to significantly increase the amount in the vaccine. The chances of that same vaccine protecting your child against an infectious and harmful disease, meanwhile, are much, much higher.
Fact #4: Vaccine-preventable diseases are dangerous.
Vaccines have now protected our country for decades. That means that many young parents may have no memory of a time when polio, measles and rubella swept through families and communities. Yes, vaccine-preventable diseases hurt people. They kill people. Take measles, for example. The disease saw a public outbreak in the United States in 2015 beginning in Anaheim’s Disneyland and another outbreak just last year in New York and other places around the country. For every 1,000 people who contract measles, one-to-three will die. Is it common? No. But when it’s your child and your family, it’s devastating.
A word about the parents and families who harbor these misconceptions. Unlike the screaming protestors featured on the local TV news, these people are usually well-meaning parents. They want what’s best for their baby, and they’re frightened by the misinformation they see online.
Vaccine hesitancy can be overcome by good, science-based information and education, and by medical providers who are trained on how to advise hesitant parents.
This isn’t, and should never be, a yelling match between parents and scientists. We all want the same thing: safe babies, safe families and safe communities. Debunking myths that hamper widespread vaccination is a step forward that we can all take together.
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