Letters from Maine

Supporting elimination of nonmedical vaccine exemptions


Let’s suppose your first patient of the morning is a 2-month-old you have never seen before. The family arrives 10 minutes late because they are still getting the dressing-undressing-diaper change-car seat–adjusting thing worked out. Father is a computer programmer. Mother lists her occupation as nutrition counselor. The child is gaining. Breastfeeding seems to come naturally to the dyad.

Toddler is held by mother while being vaccinated by doctor. KatarzynaBialasiewicz/Thinkstock

As the visit draws to a close, you take the matter-of-fact approach and say, “The nurse will be in shortly with the vaccines do you have any questions.” Well ... it turns out the parents don’t feel comfortable with vaccines. They claim to understand the science and feel that vaccines make sense for some families. But they feel that for themselves, with a healthy lifestyle and God’s benevolence their son will be protected without having to introduce a host of foreign substances into his body.

What word best describes your reaction? Anger? Frustration? Disappointment (in our education system)? Maybe you’re angry at yourself for failing to make it clear in your office pamphlet and social media feeds that to protect your other patients, you no longer accept families who refuse immunizations for the common childhood diseases.

The American Academy of Pediatrics says it feels your pain, and its Annual Leadership Forum made eliminating nonmedical vaccine exemption laws its top priority in 2019. As part of its effort to help, the AAP Board of Directors was asked to advocate for the creation of a toolkit of strategies for Academy chapters facing the challenge of nonmedical exemptions. As an initial step to this process, three physicians in the department of pediatrics at the Denver Health Medical Center have begun interviewing religious leaders in hopes of developing “clergy-specific vaccine educational materials and deriv[ing] best practices for engaging them as vaccination advocates.” The investigators describe their plan and initial findings in Pediatrics (2019 Oct. doi: 10.1542/peds.2019-0933). Although they acknowledged that their efforts may not provide a quick solution to the nonmedical exemption problem, they hope that including more stakeholders and engendering trust will help future discussions.

Fourteen pages deeper into that issue of Pediatrics is the runner-up submission of this year’s Section on Pediatric Trainees essay competition titled “What I Learned From the Antivaccine Movement” (2019 Oct. doi: 10.1542/peds.2019-2384). Alana C. Ju, MD, describes the 2-hour ordeal she endured to testify at the California State Capitol in support of a state Senate bill aimed at tightening the regulations for vaccine medical exemptions. Totally unprepared for the “level of vitriol” aimed at her and other supporters of the bill, she was “accused of violating her duty as” a pediatrician because she was failing to protect children. The supporters were called “greedy, ignorant, and negligent.”

To her credit, Dr. Ju was able to step back from this assault and began looking at the faces of her accusers and learned that, “they too, felt strongly about children’s health.” She realized that “focusing on perceived ignorance is counterproductive.” She now hopes that by focusing on the shared goal of what is best for children, “we can all be better advocates.”

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

Both of these articles have a warm sort of kumbaya feel about them. It never is a bad idea to learn more about those with whom we disagree. But before huddling up too close to the campfire, we must realize that there is good evidence that sharing the scientific data with vaccine-hesitant parents doesn’t convert them into vaccine acceptors. In fact, it may strengthen their resolve to resist (Nyhan et al. “Effective Messages in Vaccine Promotion: A Randomized Trial,” Pediatrics. 2014 Apr;133[4] e835-42).

We are unlikely to convert many anti-vaxxers by sitting down together. Our target audience needs to be legislators and the majority of people who do vaccinate their children. These are the voters who will support legislation to eliminate nonmedical vaccine exemptions. To characterize anti-vaxxers as despicable ignorants is untrue and serves no purpose. We all do care about the health of children. However, the evidence is clear that nonmedical exemptions are threatening the population at large and need to be curtailed.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at [email protected].

*This article has been updated 1/22/2020.

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