A Pediatrician's Path to Vaccine Advocacy

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A Pediatrician's Path to Vaccine Advocacy (CDC National Infant Immunization Week Blog-a-thon 2017)

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In recognition of National Infant Immunization Week (NIIW), I am participating in a blog-a-thon to discuss the critical role vaccines play in protecting children, families, and communities against vaccine-preventable diseases. Visit the NIIW blog-a-thon page to see posts from Every Child by Two/Shot of Prevention, ACOG, Child Care Aware of America, and Verywell. You can also follow the NIIW conversation on social media using the hashtag #ivax2protect.

National Infant Immunization Week Blog-a-thon with woman holding baby. #ivax2protect

Every pediatrician that I know decided to go into the specialty because they care about kids. I don’t recall any of my fellow pediatric residents, myself included, going into the field planning to make pediatric advocacy a significant part of their careers. We were busy enough trying to figure out the best way to take care of the kids on our watch, without looking out for the millions outside our hospital walls. This isn’t to say we didn’t have strong opinions on how to our country should put kids first, but we went into this field to focus on our practice, not make public statements on every childhood issue that came down the pike. Let the, you know, people who do that sort of thing… do that sort of thing.

It doesn’t take much time caring for kids, however, to have experiences that move a pediatrician to action. To realize that the issues that are impacting your patients are not going to get better without the voices of pediatricians working towards change. And few experiences rival that of watching children suffer or die from diseases that are preventable, and feeling powerless to help. To add to the frustration, a quick internet search makes it plain how myths and misinformation can make good parents make bad decisions that result in these kinds of tragedies. 

That was the journey I went through before becoming a vaccination advocate. In my medical school years, I had my first run-ins with vaccine hesitancy when I did a rotation in an area with a prominent chiropractic school. A couple of parents I took histories from weren’t just hesitant about vaccines, they were downright angry about them. My meek third-year student- self let the attending handle their concerns, but I most remember the carpool conversations that followed. Why would a family  refuse something that prevents polio, for crying out loud? It was easy to dismiss them at the time. But at least a part of me wondered where this entire framework of vaccination opposition came from. They seemed so sure of themselves, so confident they were educated about untold dangers. Was there anything to it?

It didn’t take me too much research to figure out… no.

Long before a presidential election made “alternative facts” a household phrase, the antivaccine movement was using alternative facts as a core philosophy. I found that virtually every concern raised by antivaccine websites fell apart with a modicum of diligent research.  As someone who always has liked a good mythbusting, I found it all fascinating.  It was evident that vaccination hesitancy isn’t just something that happens, but is cultivated by websites and organizations which are very heavy on emotion, but light and loose with the truth.

The second shoe fell in residency, where I was caring for countless kids on the floor and in the intensive care unit, and was faced with the realities of these kinds of decisions. For example, personally trying to resuscitate more than one child who died of influenza. Deaths that could have been prevented had the kids been vaccinated that season. The very message I repeat today – that influenza is more than just “the flu” and can be extremely serious for kids – punched me in the face that year. Other cases from whooping cough in newborns, to meningitis, to complicated chickenpox cases followed.

Since then, I've felt the drive to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to vaccine information, to help parents understand the true benefits of being fully immunized, and the potential, serious consequences of the alternative. Parents can only make good decisions regarding their child’s health when they have good information. And I have come to realize that if we as pediatricians aren’t out there, partnering with parents, and providing this information, who is better equipped to do so? As frustrating as it can be sometimes, it’s our responsibility.

I’m hopeful, because I see advocacy becoming more and more a part of medical education as well as pediatric residency. I’ve seen my colleagues cultivating the new generation of child advocates. And although every pediatrician has their own areas of focus, I know stronger voices for science-based policy to protect children are coming.

I see it in parents as well, realizing that immunizations affect more than just the individual. Standing up for those who are too young or too sick to be immunized. Realizing that the antivaccine movement isn’t what it’s cracked up to be and coming around. Banding together in grassroots efforts to pass evidence-based policy and dramatically improve immunization rates.

I expect we all know someone who has been affected by vaccine preventable disease, from polio survivors to families who have lost a loved one. This National Infant Immunization Week, I ask you to listen to them. You may be moved to speak up for vaccines, as I have been.

If you are, read the rest of the blogs in CDC's NIIW blog-a-thon, and post your support of vaccines using the hashtag #ivax2protect. Talk positively about immunizing to your friends and family. There's no need to argue, just speak up about why you immunize, and contribute to the conversation. Your voice may save a life.

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