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Tide beginning to turn on vaccine hesitancy



In the opinion of Paul A. Offit, MD, pushback against antivaccination campaigns and advocates is stronger than ever.

Dr. Paul A. Offit Chief of the division of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Dr. Paul A. Offit

The shift began with the measles outbreak in Southern California in late 2014, he said. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 125 measles cases with rash that occurred between Dec. 28, 2014, and Feb. 8, 2015, were confirmed in U.S. residents. Of these, 100 were California residents (MMWR. 2015 Feb 20;64[06];153-4).

“This outbreak spread ultimately to 25 states and involved 189 people,” Dr. Offit said at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “It was in the news almost every day. As a consequence, there were measles outbreaks in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Oregon, and Texas, and Washington, which began to turn the public sentiment against the antivaccine movement.”

Even longstanding skeptics are changing their tune. Dr. Offit, professor of pediatrics in the division of infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, cited a recent study from the Autism Science Foundation which found that 85% of parents of children with autism spectrum disorder don’t believe that vaccines cause the condition. “Although there will be parents who continue to believe that vaccines cause autism, most parents of children with autism don’t believe that,” he said. “Also, it’s a little hard to make your case that vaccines are dangerous and that you shouldn’t get them in the midst of outbreaks.”

Perhaps the greatest pushback against antivaccination efforts has been made in the legal arena. In 2019 alone, legislators in California banned parents from not vaccinating their kids because of personal beliefs, while lawmakers in New York repealed the religious exemption to vaccinate, those in Maine repealed the religious and philosophical exemption, those in New Jersey required detailed written explanation for religious exemption, and those in Washington State repealed the philosophical exemption for the MMR vaccine.

Pushback also is apparent on various social media platforms. For example, Dr. Offit said, Pinterest restricts vaccine search results to curb the spread of misinformation, YouTube removes ads from antivaccine channels, Amazon Prime has pulled antivaccination documentaries from its video service, and Facebook has taken steps to curb misinformation about vaccines. “With outbreaks and with children suffering, the media and public sentiment has largely turned against those who are vehemently against vaccines,” he said. “I’m talking about an angry, politically connected, lawyer-backed group of people who are conspiracy theorists, [those] who no matter what you say, they’re going to believe there’s a conspiracy theory to hurt their children and not believe you. When that group becomes big enough and you start to see outbreaks like we’ve seen, then it becomes an issue. That’s where it comes down to legislation. Is it your inalienable right as a U.S. citizen to allow your child to catch and transmit a potentially fatal infection? That’s what we’re struggling with now.”

When meeting with parents who are skeptical about vaccines or refuse their children to have them, Dr. Offit advises clinicians to “go down swinging” in favor of vaccination. He shared how his wife, Bonnie, a pediatrician who practices in suburban Philadelphia, counsels parents who raise such concerns. “The way she handled it initially was to do the best she could to eventually get people vaccinated,” he said. “She was successful about one-quarter of the time. Then she drew a line. She started saying to parents, ‘Look; don’t put me in a position where you are asking me to practice substandard care. I can’t send them out of this room knowing that there’s more measles out there, knowing that there’s mumps out there, knowing that there’s whooping cough out there, knowing that there’s pneumococcus and varicella out there. If this child leaves this office and is hurt by any of those viruses or bacteria and I knew I could have done something to prevent it, I couldn’t live with myself. If you’re going to let this child out without being vaccinated I can’t see you anymore because I’m responsible for the health of this child.’ With that [approach], she has been far more successful. Because at some level, if you continue to see that patient, you’re tacitly agreeing that it’s okay to [not vaccinate].”

In 2000, Dr. Offit and colleagues created the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, which provides complete, up-to-date, and reliable information about vaccines to parents and clinicians. It summarizes the purpose of each vaccine, and the relative risks and benefits in easy-to-read language. The CDC also maintains updated information about vaccines and immunizations on its web site. For his part, Dr. Offit tells parents that passing on an opportunity to vaccinate their child is not a risk-free choice. “If you choose not to get a vaccine you probably will get away with it, but you might not,” he said. “You are playing a game of Russian roulette. It may not be five empty chambers and one bullet, but maybe it’s 100,000 empty chambers and one bullet. There’s a bullet there.”

Dr. Offit reported having no relevant financial disclosures.

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