I have a piece in tomorrow’s Washington Post Outlook section titled “An early cure for parents’ vaccine panic.” It outlines some ideas I’ve been thinking about for a long time. First, if we’re at the point where Andrew Wakefield is speaking at “Master Plan” rallies with 9/11 Truthers and mind-control conspiracists (as he will be doing today in Dublin, Ireland), and parents are still hailing him as a hero, there’s obviously been a systemic communication failure by doctors and public health officials:
Since the autism-MMR canard was introduced by a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield in 1998, there have been dozens of studies by scientists around the world showing that it does not have any validity. But once fear is injected into a population, it can be difficult to eradicate, and some parents are still choosing to delay some vaccines and skip others altogether. For example, between 2005 and 2010, the rates of unvaccinated children doubled in New York and Connecticut and a recent investigation found 200 schools in southern California at risk for outbreaks because of the number of parents who were choosing not to immunize. That the concern about a possible autism-vaccine connection remains so pervasive makes clear that the efforts to combat this misinformation have been inadequate. We need to fix the way we teach parents about vaccinations — and one way to do that is to start before they actually become parents.
I started thinking about this idea almost as soon as I began work on The Panic Virus three years ago — and I’m still perplexed as to why it seems so far-fetched. Could you imagine going in for surgery, getting undressed, and only starting the conversation about the surgery’s benefits and potential risks once the anesthesiologist has an IV in your arm? And yet that’s essentially what we ask parents to do with vaccines. To me, this would make much more sense:
At a prenatal appointment, with no baby to distract or soothe, parents could ask how vaccines work. They could digest the fact that, contrary to some rumors, vaccines are not injected directly into the bloodstream, they do not contain antifreeze, and there is no evidence that children receive “too many too soon.” They could discuss early warning signs for developmental disabilities and review the studies showing that there is no connection between vaccines and autism. They could hear about the dozens of infants who have recently been hospitalized with measles or have died of whooping cough. And they could learn about “herd immunity” — what occurs when enough people in a population are immune to a disease to prohibit it from being spread in the first place.
The piece has only been posted for around 12 hours, and already I’m hearing from doctors who think I’m being preposterous. Some of the reasons I’ve received so far: There’s no insurance code to bill for a prenatal vaccine education appointment; parents don’t come in for prenatal appointments in the first place; ob-gyns don’t know (and shouldn’t need to learn) about all of parents’ concerns about vaccines; if parents just trusted doctors in the first place none of this would even be an issue.
I’m not trying to say that these are the views of most doctors; believe me, I know the people you’re likely to hear about on any topic are the ones who are most incensed. Still, I admit I’m surprised by the amount of pushback — or possibly defensiveness — regarding what seems to me to be a fairly non-controversial proposal.
So I’m curious: For the parents (or expectant parents) out there: Is this the type of thing that you think would have made you feel more comfortable? And for family doctors, pediatricians, ob-gyns, or anyone else on the health-care side of things: Do you think something like this could be effective — and what do you think the hurdles would be towards implementing it?
I’d like to try to spark a genuine discussion instead of a lot of grandstanding in the comments, so I’m not interested in comments explaining: The reasons everything I said in The Washington Post is a lie; the proof that The Washington Post is part of an international medical-pharma conspiracy; why Andrew Wakefield is a saint; why Andrew Wakefield is a martyr; why Andrew Wakefield is a criminal; why Andrew Wakefield is a moron; why people who vaccinate are stupid; why people who don’t vaccinate are stupid; etc. Anyone interested in reading (or commenting) about any of those things have had plenty of chances to do so in previous posts. For the sake of this discussion, I want to limit input to the questions I posed in the previous paragraph.
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