The Scary Saga of the Anti-Vaccine Crusade

March 3, 2017

Despite an overwhelming abundance of evidence, some anti-vaccine advocates are insistent that they are not safe.

I have a great interest in public and community health. In fact, my first job as a PA was working for a county health department in a clinic environment. During my tenure in public health, I got to see firsthand the deleterious effects of a lack of vaccination against danger and communicable diseases.

During the early 1980's, we had outbreaks of measles and German measles that we had to track down and contain. There is no excuse for failing to eradicate polio, measles, rubella, pertussis and other diseases, other than a lack of political will, and determined evidence-based community health and epidemiology programs. We have the means to make these diseases a thing of the past. So, why haven't we?

I'm one of the people who have been very critical of "anti-vaxxers" or people and scientists who perpetuate myths and falsehoods about vaccines, and use this misinformation to justify their fear of vaccinations. The Internet has greatly aided people in disseminating false and misleading information about vaccines. A simple "vaccine" Google search renders an explosion of websites dedicated to scaring the hell out of parents in regards to vaccines.

Make no mistake. I understand the risks of any and all vaccines. There is always a downside to therapeutics of any kind. On the other hand, the overwhelming weight of evidence supports universal vaccination programs, and their safety and efficacy.

It used to be that the public relied on their healthcare providers for information about vaccination risk, benefits, and alternatives. No longer. Some people are more willing to believe and disseminate false and misleading information, than they are the men and women in medicine and science, who have studied this subject their entire lives.

A side effect of the angst of vaccination has been a trend of parents to not stop vaccinating their children, but coming up with their own schedules, or delaying critical vaccinations because they are worried about giving their children "too many" vaccinations at the same time. According to an article published in The Economistlast year, this is the main reason that industrialized countries around the globe have missed their self-imposed targets for eradication of things like measles.

This really surprised me, but it made sense when you look at the information and research. The hardcore anti-vaccination people make up 2-3 percent, and can be a source of outbreaks, but the partially vaccinated people in our society are many, many more, and make up an ever greater risk to the problem of eradicating these dangerous communicable diseases.

From a public health standpoint, this is frustrating and saddening. We have the knowledge and the tools, but not the political will to solve this crisis. People will continue to be killed and disabled by these diseases unless we take back the initiative on vaccinations.

The medical community needs a concerted effort to get back in the forefront of educating their patients and their communities. Another problem with this education process is that because of our past success in the public health realm, the current generation of parents (and most recent generations as well) have little experience with the ravages of preventable, communicable disease. They haven't seen birth defects from rubella, vast wards of iron lungs, or people walking on crutches with leg braces. This distant but real memory just doesn't resonate.

As healthcare providers, and organizations of physicians, physician assistants and nurse practitioners, we need to embark upon a comprehensive education program that doesn't shy away from painful images of the past to put preventable communicable disease in context. One of the most painful things that I have seen is videos of very young children struggling to breath after contracting pertussis. Every parent should see this. I can remember my mother's best friend paralyzed for the rest of her life due to contracting polio. There is no excuse for allowing even one more case of these diseases to ravage a life.

On the safety side, organized medicine needs to be at the forefront of vaccine safety and research to ensure that vaccine programs do everything possible to minimize the negative and potentially dangerous effects of routine vaccinations. Vaccines are safe. We can always make them safer.

John Naisbitt once said, "Leadership involves finding a parade and getting in front of it." However, leadership is more than just getting in front of the parade; we must change the direction of the parade for the good of our communities. Let's seize the initiative from the misinformed, and correct a huge misinformation campaign.

Our patients' lives are counting on it.