I think the misunderstanding amongst “anti-vaxxers”, and the one area that the medical community has not taken steps to address, is that vaccines are basically a preventative medication. Yes, there are contraindications; certain people should not receive certain vaccines. Severe reactions have been reported and while not all of them can be linked to vaccines, some can. But when these arguments come up that are not backed up by data, the medical community responds in a way that might not be the most effective.
Misinformation and fear are nothing to laugh at — people who are terrified often take extreme measures to protect themselves and their children. It’s difficult for people who are terrified to rationalize their fears, especially when the response from the medical community is just “vaccines are safe”.
Let’s consider DTaP, one of the childhood vaccines that requires the most doses. Studies have not linked DTaP to autism, so people who fear autism and opt out of all vaccines obviously aren’t just citing this single debunked study when they raise their concerns. DTaP can, however, cause encephalitic reactions. When a whole-cell version of the pertussis vaccine was used, the rate of encephalitic reactions was much higher. With the acellular version, the risk is lower, but still there.
Let’s say a parent administers DTaP and the child has a documented, severe reaction. Future doses might be contraindicated. Every vaccine has contraindications, ranging from “don’t administer if allergic to eggs” to “don’t administer if the child has a high fever”. Instead of taking the “CALM DOWN, VACCINES ARE SAFE” approach, the medical community can take a bit more time to review contraindications and to review the risks/benefits on a personalized and individualized basis.
Is it annoying? Maybe. Is it time consuming? Yep. But will it get more parents to show up to appointments? Probably.
Instead of, “Your child is 2 months old. Time for 8 doses of vaccines today!”, doctors can take an empathetic approach and recognize that new parents might have fears — irrational and ridiculous or not. They’re dealing with sleep-deprived parents who might have done a bit too much Googling and who probably have their hearts in the right place. I’m not convinced that anti-vaxxers want to hurt their children.
Whether or not their fears are valid, we can approach them with compassion. Doctors can take an extra 10 minutes to review each vaccine, the contraindications, and the risk of not administering it. If a parent is terrified, give them information. Offer to administer one vaccine today and the next one next week if that’s what it takes. The parent thinks the child is allergic to eggs? Offer an allergy test to prove that everything is alright. The only way to tackle this issue, which can and will become a major issue public health issue, is to be compassionate. The parent wants to split up MMR into M, M, and R in 3 separate doses? Fine. Honestly, it’s not a big deal if it helps the community as a whole become less fearful.
It’s almost like exposure therapy, which we often use in mental health, especially when treating OCD. Post-partum OCD is very common and very overlooked, by the way. I mention this because the anti-vaccine sentiments often start right after the child is born, not after a reaction occurs.
Here’s how it goes: You’re terrified. It feels very real to you. It’s not as real as you perceive. We’ll show you. One at a time. I’m willing to bet that an anti-vaxxer who is treated with compassion is more likely to return for another round of vaccines once they see that their child hasn’t suffered any severe effects. And that anti-vaxxer might become a former anti-vaxxer. They might stop spreading misinformation. They might reassure their family and friends that everything is okay.
And if their child does have a true contraindication to a vaccine? They’ll walk away with a deeper understanding of why that vaccine was not safe for their child, but that other vaccines were administrated without an issue.