THE BLOG

How We Can End the Anti-vaccination Feud

03/05/2015 03:44 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2015

It is time to move beyond the blame game regarding childhood vaccinations and replace it with honest dialogue and outreach in order to ensure the current measles outbreak -- which has infected more than 170 people in 17 states -- doesn't happen again.

This follows a record 644 cases in 2014, the highest caseload since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared that measles had been eliminated in our country in 2000.

Continuing the current tone of confrontation will only aggravate the growing schism between those who refuse vaccinations and those of us who believe vaccines are the public's best defense against communicable diseases. The real public health solution is to identify common ground and talk to each other.

The finger-pointing is largely aimed at the so-called "anti-vaxxers," who accuse doctors, public health agencies and other vaccine advocates of shilling for the pharmaceutical industry.

Many are affluent, educated parents who believe vaccines -- including the vaccine to prevent measles, mumps and rubella -- are linked to a variety of health problems, especially autism. A recent Pew Research Center study found that nearly one in 10 Americans believes vaccines are unsafe. Mainstream medicine and public health authorities strongly disagree, citing studies reaffirming over and again that the disease-preventing benefits of vaccines vastly outweigh any minuscule risks the drugs may present. And the link to autism has been thoroughly discredited.

As measles cases have mounted, the backlash against the anti-vaccine movement has grown increasingly hostile. Some parents, through mainstream and social media, are blaming the anti-vaxxers for putting children at increased -- and very real -- risk of disease.

Playing the blame game won't help. Yes, the key to quelling outbreaks is to increase immunization coverage across the entire population, and that means reducing the number of vaccine refusals. But we do that by building goodwill and trust, not through confrontation.

That's how the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) has over the years been able to win the hearts and minds of parents wary of the oral polio vaccine in developing countries.

When Rotary International began the polio eradication campaign in 1985, the disease was endemic in 125 countries with over 350,000 cases a year worldwide. Opposition to the polio vaccination effort in many countries was rooted in fear and misunderstanding of the vaccine and the overall effort. For example, in some communities in Pakistan and Nigeria, Muslim extremists cast polio immunization as a Western plot to sicken or sterilize local children. Despite such significant misinformation, the GPEI has vaccinated more than 2.5 billion children against polio, preventing 10 million cases of paralysis; and the disease is now endemic in only three countries and the number of cases worldwide last year dropped to less than 370. These extraordinary results were only possible due to extensive outreach and education programs. Rotarians in both countries have been especially effective in gaining parents' trust by working closely with traditional and religious leaders to correct the rumors in a culturally appropriate, non-threatening manner.

The Nigerian government cites community outreach as a factor in the success of January's immunization efforts, which reached more than 200,000 children and helped keep vaccination coverage. Nigeria has not reported a new case of polio in more than six months, further proof that our approach is effective.

Granted, the reasons for refusing polio vaccine in an isolated Nigerian or Pakistani village, where poverty and illiteracy play a major role, differ from the reasons high-income, college-educated parents in the U.S. opt out of measles shots. But human nature is human nature, and people with firm beliefs will push back defensively if they feel threatened. The heavy-handed approach often doesn't work.

Vaccine proponents need to see the skeptics as the concerned parents they are not as a movement. Our shared goal is the safety and well-being of our children. Start with the common ground, and talk it through.

In developing countries, the many adults and children disabled by polio continue to provide a grim reminder of the consequences of not being immunized. The measles outbreaks in America provide a similar teaching moment. Every new case of measles demonstrates to all parents, including those who have previously declined vaccinations, why immunizations are vital if we are to give our children the best possible opportunity to grow up safe and healthy. An honest and open conversation is the only effective way to get there.