Earlier this year, the World Health Organization published a list of ten of the biggest threats to global health. Listed alongside serious illnesses like Ebola, dengue and HIV was a threat that I think many people don’t take seriously enough: vaccine hesitancy.
The WHO defines vaccine hesitancy as “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines.” That means that people with access to affordable vaccines are choosing not to vaccinate themselves or their children. In most developed countries, we can attribute the decline in the vaccination rate to fear and anti-vaccine misinformation.
Vaccination rates are not something we can ignore. According to NIH.gov, a “decline in measles vaccination is causing a preventable global resurgence of the disease.” Measles is just one of the many vaccine-preventable illnesses that could return to prominence if people stop vaccinating.
To be fair, I totally understand why parents end up vaccine hesitant. The truth is, I used to be that parent.
When I was pregnant with my first child, acquaintances bombarded me with anti-vaccine messages. People showed me horror stories that seemed totally plausible to me at the time. I didn’t even realize how ill-equipped I was to wade through the complicated data and separate fact from fiction. I took a lot of stories at face value, and I ended up terrified and very confused.
Ultimately, I decided to vaccinate my kids on an alternative schedule. Even then, I was incredibly afraid that I might be making the wrong choice. I couldn’t shake all the voices telling me that vaccines were packed with “heavy metals and toxins,” and they would do irreparable harm to my baby.
As I watched my first child do just fine with vaccines, I grew a bit more comfortable with my decision to immunize my children, but I was still somewhat vaccine hesitant by the time my second child was born. Despite my lingering nerves, I followed the recommended schedule for my second son’s vaccinations. Postpartum anxiety hit me like a freight train, so I declined his first vaccine in the hospital, but we caught him up at his one month visit.
Early this year, we got an official autism diagnosis for my super awesome three-year-old son. The diagnosing pediatrician gave us a lot of encouragement and a few book suggestions. Then he encouraged me to learn as much as I could about the science of vaccination while I was trying to learn about autism. The doctor knew I’d encounter a lot of anti-vaccine misinformation in my online travels. He wanted me to be prepared to separate fact from fiction.
Enter my favorite online vaccine resource: Vaccine Talk: A Forum for Pro and Anti Vaxxers, a Facebook group boasting nearly 22,000 members.
Listen, I know Facebook is full of vaccine discussion groups. Most of them are dumpster fires, but Vaccine Talk is different for three huge reasons.
First, people all over the vaccine debate spectrum participate in this group. From the staunchest anti-vaxxer to the most adamant pro-vaxxer, everyone is welcome. You don’t even have to know where you stand! Members who are vaccine hesitant or on the fence about vaccinating are welcome. They can voice their concerns, ask questions, and hear what other members have to say.
Secondly, this group is evidence-based. If you make an assertion, you must provide a citation. Other members are then free to critique your citation. The admins and moderators are great about watching the discussion and shutting down any name-calling or personal attacks. You only have to defend your position — not yourself.
The third big difference is what excites me the most. Dozens of professionals with higher level science and medical education actively participate in the group. They aren’t all admins or moderators, and nobody is paying them for their time. They participate as volunteers because they are interested in discussing vaccines, just like everyone else. If you aren’t comfortable getting your information from laypeople, or if you are unsure how to interpret scientific data, you can ask an expert for help.
When I say expert, I mean EXPERT.
RNs from dozens of varied fields. Nurse Practitioners. Pediatricians. Pediatric oncologists. Adult infectious disease specialists. Cancer researchers. Emergency physicians. A professor of epidemiology. A molecular microbiologist who teaches immunology at the college level. A PhD pharmacologist that works evaluating new products for a pharmaceutical company. An epidemiologist who responded to the 2014 West African Ebola outbreak.
There’s a biologist who conducts research at a world-renowned children’s hospital, and a retired virologist with a PhD in molecular biology who worked with polio survivors. One woman identified herself as a PhD bioethicist, and I won’t lie. I had to google what that meant.
One of the most exciting gems of the group is a bona fide blood-brain barrier expert. A lot of vaccine hesitant parents have concerns about things like mercury or aluminum in vaccines. He is great at explaining in simple terms what can and cannot move from the bloodstream into the brain and why.
This list is just the tip of the iceberg. You wouldn’t believe the level of education in this group. (There’s a young man with a biochemistry degree who I think is some kind of legit genius. I haven’t found a way to ask that isn’t the epitome of awkward.) There are very few places on earth where an average mom like me can have access to this many scientists and physicians willing to answer all of my vaccine-related questions.
Thousands of people are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of conflicting information they see on a daily basis about vaccines. If you’re one of them, take a deep breath. You don’t have to try to make sense of it alone. You can start by speaking to your kids’ own pediatrician. Schedule an appointment to let them know your concerns. See if they can put your mind at ease.
In the meantime, incredible resources like Vaccine Talk are at your fingertips, just waiting for you to utilize them.
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