Turns out that that when it comes to vaccines, the most influential opinion isn’t from your pediatrician, your OB, or the nurses in your hospital: It’s from your friends and peers, and what you read online.
Yes, this is alarming.
As Kim Nelson, founder of South Carolina Parents for Vaccines told NPR, she knows it’s easy “to fall down Internet rabbit holes and into a world of fake studies and scary stories.” Especially when that information is shared by an acquaintance or trusted friend on social media. It turns out, according to one CDC study, that a full 90% of moms have made up their minds about whether or not to vaccinate by the time they’re in their second trimester.
I knew I had, with my first son. And I was a hard pass on many of them, including the newborn Hepatitis B shot. I was delivering at a birth center, and my midwife had told me all kinds of (inaccurate) scary stories about vaccine reactions. She’d even filled my ears with stories about how the flu vaccine would likely give me a miscarriage, but since this was the year swine flu was such a big deal, we were too afraid to risk my life. We got our anti-vax information from people we thought were trusted sources: from people we already knew, from people who were already parents. From our trusted peers.
They weren’t trustworthy sources though; they weren’t professionals with accurate knowledge of vaccines; they weren’t doctors. But because they were friends and peers, their opinions held weight.
Knowing that once a parent makes up their mind about vaccines, it’s very hard to change their mind, Nelson was determined to get accurate information to folks before they became parents.
So she organized outreach programs “to counter bad online information with facts.” And because she understands the power that friends and peers have over the information we receive and trust, she also does her best to make sure that people understand the value of personal interactions when it comes to vaccinations.
Nelson recently organized a class at a public library, and one woman drove an hour and a half to show up. She told Scary Mommy that a recent Facebook live question and answer event, held in tandem with a pediatrician, was very successful. Parents were able to refer back to it afterwards, she says. “They watched the video after it aired … I spent a lot of time talking about what we vaccinate against, what we do, and whether or not people have actually ever seen a reaction.”
Nelson also told Scary Mommy that it is incumbent on parents who have vaccinated to spread the word about the importance of vaccines. Parents, she says, “need to stand up and say, ‘I know that you have fears, say that I was hesitant, too but what really helped me was … whatever got you over that hurdle. We get our parenting information from other parents. I don’t always pick up my phone and call my pediatrician, but I sometimes need to bounce ideas off an experienced mom first.” Ultimately, she says, if parents vaccinated their kids, “they need to be talking to other parents.”
But there’s a whole other problem with reaching parents once they hit the pediatrician’s office. As Nelson told NPR, “It’s easier to pull a hesitant parent over than it is somebody who is firmly anti-vax.” She says that parents who oppose vaccination often feel so strongly about it that they won’t engage in a (fact-based) discussion.
She explains that, “When someone makes the choice to not vaccinate, it’s because there’s someone in their ear: they find a home and get a community … and support and friends.” But part of that, Nelson says, is evangelizing anti-vax sentiments and talking points. “They don’t want to stay in the echo chamber — they want to recruit. They aren’t just saying they don’t vaccinate, they are actively promoting it. That’s what we’re trying to counter: a belief system. It’s not a fact fight, it’s an emotional fight.”
I was hesitant to vaccinate. But after my transfer from a birth center, the nurses at the hospital provided me with accurate information and resources and talked me into a pertussis shot. I read about the disease. It frightened me, and I agreed to let my son get the vaccination. A month later, my husband contracted the disease. He nearly cracked a rib coughing. But my son and I never got it; we were protected by the shots we’d gotten. I was so thankful we had received those vaccinations.
But this wasn’t ideal. As Nelson told Scary Mommy, “You have to reach people before it’s part of their identity and you get that before they have their children. You have to get them before they are bringing their children in for shots.” She says it’s critical to make sure the info is out there and accepted “before they have time to marinate on their fears and anxieties.”
One of the important ways she’s trying to do that is to get hospitals to incorporate vaccine information into their childbirth and infant CPR classes. She tells Scary Mommy that she knows it costs time and resources to do this. “We’re paying for it one way or another,” she reminds us. “On the front end in resources, or we’re paying for it in outbreaks.”
Last year, South Carolina saw two measles outbreaks, one in Georgetown that involved one child, and one in Spartanburg County, which involved six children, at least three of which were unvaccinated children of preschool age. She tells Scary Mommy that the state’s epidemiologists — and indeed, epidemiologists across the nation — know where the outbreaks are going to take place. “It’s that breakdown in herd immunity,” she says. “The Upstate [the area in which Spartanburg is located] has the highest number of religious exemptions. We’re lucky it stopped at six.”
Recently, Oregon and Washington had a measles outbreak. They are still working to contain this. So far, 75 measles cases have been confirmed, with more suspected. In late January, the Washington governor, Jay Inslee, declared a state of emergency in hopes of obtaining additional resources to help contain the outbreak.
The time to educate people is now.
Many parents are hesitant to vaccinate, like I was, because they think it’s somehow more dangerous than getting the disease itself. But it’s not. Nelson tells Scary Mommy, “Sometimes it takes a personal connection to the disease, and we have no collective memory of HiB or measles.” People often question, she says, the need for Hepatitis B shots at birth, the need for maternal vaccines. They think that their kids are getting too many shots at once. They worry about how well we know these shots — are they actually safe? And many times, there are questions about ingredients.
Anti-vaxxers, Nelson says, are only too happy to fill that void with their misinformation. Public health advocates? Not so much. As Nelson laments, “We save these conversations because they’re nuanced and take a lot of time.” In the end, public health advocates don’t talk about how vaccines are safe, what their ingredients are, and what they do; they’re left defending them instead.
“We’re countering this information,” Nelson says. “The best defense is a good offense: it’s the same as public health.”
She gives this example: “If the only talking point you hear is that aluminum will kill your children, you’ll want to keep your child safe … and aluminum is a metal, and metals sound bad.” But, she says, “We’re missing that nuance: let’s talk about compounds and dosing.”
Ultimately, states Nelson, there needs to be a coordinated effort on the part of public health agencies of all stripes: national, state, and others — to promote the importance of vaccinations. To combat the misconceptions. To explain, for example, why newborns need Hepatitis B shots at birth (the explanation I had been given, it turns out, was completely off base). The pro-vaccination movement needs to go on the offensive, not the defensive, and it’s crucial for parents everywhere — that includes you — to speak out.
Vaccines save lives. Speak up.