Global outbreaks of infectious diseases—such as smallpox, pertussis, dysentery, and scarlet fever—seem like fodder for the history books. It was centuries ago that epidemics wiped out large swathes of the world population. Many people living and raising children today have never witnessed the devastating effects of measles, mumps, polio, and influenza—diseases that have been substantially reduced or even eradicated.1 Why? Because since the early 1900s, we have had scientifically developed and widely distributed vaccines at our disposal.
In context, it is incredible to realize that we are still in the beginning stages of vaccine research and development. From that perspective, it is perhaps not as surprising that some parents are hesitant to vaccinate their children—after all, do we really know everything we can and should know about inoculation? Parental resistance to or refusal of vaccination is further fueled by tainted research (Andrew Wakefield was forced to retract his findings that “validated” a link between thimerosal in vaccines and autism) and misinformation propagated on the Internet.2
But what has long been a source of frustration to those who support routine vaccination has, in recent years, started to become a public health issue. Measles outbreaks are no longer historical artifacts—they are real, as evidenced by the current rise in cases centered in Clark County, Washington. Through the first full week of February 2019, there were 101 confirmed cases of measles in the US, half of which occurred in Washington State—leading the governor to declare a public health emergency.3
This has, of course, reinvigorated the ongoing discussion about parental refusal to vaccinate. Enough has been said on this topic, by both public officials and private individuals, in a variety of venues over the years. So I’d like to focus instead on the role that individual health care providers can play in this situation.
Over the years, many of my colleagues have shared stories about parents who have refused to vaccinate their children. We know many things: These parents often fear complications from vaccination more than complications of disease. Many have religious or philosophical reasons for their reluctance or refusal to vaccinate their children. Some have concerns about vaccine safety or effectiveness. We know these things … but we don’t always know how to speak with parents about these issues.
It is somewhat ironic that the core motivation for hesitant parents and well-meaning clinicians is the same: care and protection of the child. The difficulty lies in the disparate view of what that entails. As NPs and PAs, though, our duty is to seek health benefits for and minimize harm to the patients in our care. Part of our role, when those patients are children, is to provide parents with the necessary risk-benefit information to help them make informed decisions. When the subject is vaccination, we must listen carefully and be respectful of parents’ concerns; we must recognize that their decision-making criteria may differ from ours.
So how can we bridge the gap with parents who “don’t see it the way we do”? We start by being honest with them about what is and isn’t known as far as the risks and benefits of vaccination in general or a vaccine in particular. This means acknowledging that although vaccines are very safe, they are not risk-free or 100% effective. But this also gives us the opportunity to provide them with validated data and to emphasize that the risks of any vaccine should not be considered in a silo but rather in comparison with the risks of the disease in question or of the lack of immunization.
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