I’ve always loved the back-to-school season. It’s full of excitement, whether about a new lunchbox, a fresh supply of crayons, or the mandatory “first day of school” picture. It’s also full of promise – a new grade, new things to learn, and seeing school friends again. But that excitement and promise relies on a healthy child, a healthy classroom, and a healthy community. That’s why, as a doctor, I remind parents that being up to date on vaccines needs to be part of their to-do list.
I know most parents value vaccines. I also know vaccines have been unfairly and inaccurately targeted by some. The fact is, most Americans trust routine vaccines. Despite the overwhelming support for routine vaccines by doctors and parents alike, vaccination rates are declining. These two facts may seem at odds with each other. They are not. They are evidence of a worrying trend: a small minority voice is negatively influencing vaccine confidence through myths and fear.
I must emphasize the importance of speaking up about the value of vaccines. Many of us don’t want to create conflict. We stay silent because we fear a vaccine conversation might become argumentative. Unfortunately, silence creates a void that may be filled with unreliable information. Parents with well-meaning questions are at risk of getting answers that are not backed by science. It is hard to make an informed decision when you are afraid, confused, or have incorrect information.
For diseases that spread easily from person to person, vaccine coverage needs to be very high to protect our children and our communities. Small drops in vaccination rates can impact our families. Recent data suggests that declining vaccination rates for diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, and whooping cough may lead to outbreaks of these diseases.
The consequences of these declining vaccination rates can be severe. Because this downward trend has continued in the last several years, I fear we will hear more whooping coughs and see more devasting illnesses in our children. Have you ever seen a baby struggle to breath because of whooping cough? It is heartbreaking, it is a serious medical condition for the infant, and it is preventable.
Speaking up against misinformation
Vaccines are one of the biggest public health success stories. Data shows they are safe and save lives. Misinformation is eroding public confidence in them. If we want vaccines to continue to protect our children, we need to speak up and protect vaccines. As a pediatrician, I know firsthand how challenging this can feel. But we need to push past our discomfort because these conversations are essential to the health and safety of our children.
As a community we need to collectively model positive vaccine conversations. Part of reframing the discussion is ensuring that everyone has the most up-to-date and accurate information.
In celebration of National Immunization Awareness Month, I urge you to take the following three steps.
- Inform: Learn more about vaccines and how to identify misinformation. Reputable places to learn more include:
- Government Health Agencies like HHS or CDC
- Health Care Organizations like Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia or Mayo Clinic
- Medical Associations like American Academy of Pediatrics or American Academy of Family Physicians
- Reputable Nonprofits like Vaccinate Your Family or Immunize.Org
- State or Local Health Departments
- Engage: Be vocal about your support for vaccines. This can be as easy as mentioning how much better you feel making sure your child is up to date on their vaccines before school starts. Don’t ignore misinformation. Kindly and respectfully share what you know and how vaccines benefit the health and safety of your family. Conversations don’t have to be – and shouldn’t be – debates. If you share your knowledge and confidence regularly, you can help dispel myths and protect the health and safety of our families.
- Support: In some communities, vaccines are being debated at school board meetings and other venues. Show up! You don’t need to speak if you are not comfortable, but your presence can send a powerful message.
So this back-to-school season, let’s work together to advocate for vaccines. When we become more active in vaccine conversations, we can frame the conversation with factual information. Together we can empower the majority to speak up and ensure vaccine conversations are free from misinformation.