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Claire McCarthy, M.D.

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I Really Want to Know: What Can I Do for Parents Who Are Afraid of Vaccines?

Posted: 02/22/2012 2:39 pm

News came out recently that someone with measles hung out at the Super Bowl Village in Indianapolis with about 200,000 people. Public health alerts went out here in Massachusetts to be on the lookout for the illness in football fans that went to the game. Now that would be a bummer: spending all that money to watch the Patriots lose and coming back with a case of measles.

There was a flurry of media about it, and then it faded away. This surprised me; I thought that maybe the exposure of so many people would get us talking about how measles cases are increasing here in the U.S. I thought there would be more discussion about the dangers of this incredibly contagious disease, and about immunization and why some people don't want their children to get the vaccine. But within days, the story was gone.

This got me thinking: what's it going to take to really get us talking?

Most parents I see in our practice are fine with immunizations. But here and there, I meet parents who aren't. They are all loving parents, and generally very thoughtful and well educated. We talk for a long time, but the problem usually is that they believe their sources of information more than they do mine. The measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is one that often particularly worries them, even when I point out that we are seeing cases of measles here in Massachusetts.

I don't know everything there is to know about anything, let alone vaccines. I am the first to admit that. But from everything I've read, I really do believe that the MMR vaccine is safe (we are very careful when it comes to treatments we give to children). And I am very certain that it doesn't cause autism. Study after study has failed to show a connection. The only study that reported a connection, the one by Andrew Wakefield (who has since lost his medical license) that was published by the Lancet, was retracted when it was discovered that data in it was falsified.

We give the MMR vaccine at a year, right when kids are supposed to start talking, right when the diagnosis of autism can begin to become apparent. When they don't start talking, or they start talking less when they should be talking more, I totally get how parents could look at the MMR vaccine as a possible cause -- but it's not.

Yet some parents are still more afraid of the vaccine than they are of measles.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, our childhood immunization rate for MMR here in the U.S. is around 90 percent. That sounds good, and it is certainly better than many countries around the world (it's visitors from or to those other countries that cause most of the US measles cases), but it still leaves a lot of children unprotected -- not just the ten percent who don't get immunized, but the babies less than 12 months who are too young for the vaccine. And kids who only have one dose may not be fully protected.

What if the next exposure happens at a daycare in an infant room where nobody is immunized? What if lots of infants get sick, spreading it through the daycare? What if some die? It is totally possible, in fact, with the way cases are increasing in the U.S., I worry that it's not just possible but probable that we are going to have an outbreak like this.

It might be enough to make parents more afraid of measles than the vaccine. But I don't want it to happen. Nobody does.

So what can I do for parents who are afraid of vaccines? This is an honest question, not a rhetorical one. I want kids to be healthy and not end up with complications of vaccine-preventable diseases. Parents want the same thing, no matter what their stance is on immunization. Given that we are on the same side, really, is there a way to have a conversation that doesn't end up as a standoff? This isn't about forcing people; I would never refuse to see a family who doesn't want to vaccinate. I just want to be able to talk about why they believe their sources of information more than mine, and see if we can at least find a middle ground. I'd like to find a way for them to trust me and believe that I would never, ever, do something to hurt a child.

If there's anything we should be able to unite around, it's the health of children. I really want to know: what can we do?

 

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